The cost of foodborne illness

Foodborne illness can be more than just an inconvenience.

A dollar sign image and graphics of germs.
Photo: Pixabay.

Foodborne illness can be much more than just a stomachache, it can be a serious health issue and an economic burden. The Economic Research Service (ERS), which is a part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), estimates that foodborne illnesses caused by pathogens such as Salmonella, Toxoplasma gondii, Listeria monocytogenes, Norovirus, and Campylobacter cost the United States $15.5 billion annually. This enormous economic burden is associated with medical expenses and the loss of production from workers being unable to work, due to the effects of food poisoning, which can include illness and even premature death.

Beyond the economic cost, the physical suffering foodborne illness can cause is significant. Foodborne illness strikes an estimated 48 million Americans yearly. Of those 48 million people who are sickened, 128,000 people will become sick enough to be hospitalized, and 3,000 of those people will die. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified certain populations that are prone to serious illness due to contaminated food:

  • Adults aged 65 and older are considered high risk due to their lower immune systems.
  • Children under five years old have immune systems that are still developing.
  • Individuals with compromised immune systems due to illness or treatments.
  • Pregnant women, who are 10 times more susceptible to Listeria.

Foodborne illnesses are caused by ingesting food that has been contaminated by bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical elements and can occur any time that food safety practices are not followed. The problem is that because disease-causing pathogens cannot be smelled or tasted, or even seen without a microscope, you will not know if they are present on your next meal. For example, imagine the salad you have for lunch was prepared by someone who recently recovered from norovirus but did not wash their hands properly after using the restroom. Your salad could have an unwanted topping of norovirus particles that could sicken you with stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea for three days and result in you missing work. Additionally, this illness could require a visit to the urgent care center. In this instance, not only would foodborne illness result in the physical suffering of being sick, but also the economic burden of healthcare costs and missed days of work.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers these suggestions to help protect yourself from becoming one of these statistics:

  • Before beginning any food preparation, wash your hands, scrubbing for at least 20 seconds using soap and water.
  • Cook all food to the proper temperature and reheat all leftovers to 165°F. Use a thermometer and check to be sure.
  • Bacteria grow fastest at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, known as the temperature danger zone, so chill or heat food to proper temperatures promptly.
  • Make sure that all surfaces that come in contact with foods, including your hands, are clean.
  • Cross-contamination is one way bacteria can spread. Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and their juices away from ready-to-eat food. Use one cutting board for raw meat, poultry and seafood and another for salads and ready-to-eat food.

Michigan State University Extension recommends keeping these food safety tips in mind to avoid foodborne illness, help you and your family stay healthy and keep more of your hard-earned money in your pocket.

Did you find this article useful?