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Foodborne Illnesses Could Cost U.S. $15 billion


Americans had to dig deep into their wallets to cover costs associated with foodborne illnesses, according to new estimates from the U.S. Department Agriculture.

There were 9.4 million identified cases of foodborne illnesses in 2011 – caused by pathogens like norovirus, listeria and salmonella – according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Add up the cost of hospitalization, medication and lost wages due to missing work, and that comes to a total bill of about $15.2 billion.

USDA economist Sandra Hoffman says 95% of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. are caused by just 15 different pathogens. Indeed, she says five pathogens alone are responsible for 84% of the foodborne illnesses across the county.

“Knowing what different pathogens cost gives us an idea of where the biggest problems are and how to focus them,” she said. “Just knowing the number of illnesses isn’t enough because illnesses vary a lot in how serious they are.”

Researchers estimate the vast majority of foodborne illnesses aren’t diagnosed – about 38 million cases – leaving the potential price tag even higher.

Hoffman says data from the USDA report helps draw attention to the need for public investments in state departments of public health and the disease surveillance efforts by the CDC.

“Without those investments, we have no idea how many people are getting sick,” she said. “And without better attention to that, we won’t have a way of knowing what’s causing the illness for those 38 million people.”

Kristofor Husted is a senior reporter at KBIA in Columbia, Mo. Previously Husted reported for NPR’s Science Desk in Washington and Harvest Public Media. Husted was a 2013 fellow with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and a 2015 fellow for the Institute for Journalism and Justice. He’s won regional and national Edward R. Murrow, PRNDI and Sigma Delta Chi awards. Husted also is an instructor at the Missouri School of Journalism. He received a B.S. in cell biology from UC Davis and an M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University.