Cost of food-borne illnesses is deemed much higher than earlier estimates

It turns out that tainted food can not only make people sick, but it can also cost them a bundle in the process.

A new consumer research report released Wednesday has found that the health-related costs of food-borne illnesses total $152 billion a year, including the costs of medical bills, lost wages and lost productivity. That total is more than four times that of earlier estimates calculated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The findings come as regulatory efforts to patrol the country’s food sector are growing amid reports of a string of costly -- and sometimes fatal -- outbreaks of food-borne illness involving peanuts, jalapeno peppers, spinach, beef and other foods.

The report, sponsored by the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University, provides a comprehensive examination of health costs associated with flaws in the nation’s food safety system and “demonstrates the burden of food-borne illness,” said Sandra Eskin, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Food Safety Campaign, a supporter of the study.

In 1997, the USDA reportedly pegged the public cost of sickness and death from eating tainted food at $35 billion a year. But that research looked at the fallout from only a handful of food-borne pathogens and didn’t include as many long-term effects from such illnesses, including how they can affect a person’s quality of life.

The Produce Safety Project identified 27 pathogens, said Robert Scharff, an economist who authored the newly released report. Researchers say some of the pathogens, such as norovirus or salmonella, are responsible for making a million or more Americans sick each year; others, such as botulism, sicken far fewer people.

Yet in most cases, researchers still can’t pinpoint why or how people get ill from what they eat. The study attributes just over 80% of the illnesses and two-thirds of the costs to unknown food-related causes, a determination made by statistical analysis of symptoms associated with food-borne sickness such as diarrhea, Scharff said.

Costs varied significantly by state and were influenced by regional differences in diet and health, varying prices for medical care and regulators’ ability to quickly respond and curtail food contamination outbreaks.

Officials from the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the safety of most of the nation’s food supply, said they hadn’t yet reviewed the report’s findings.

The report is aimed at pressuring Congress to pass more stringent food safety legislation by making the case that such oversight is a matter of national economic well-being as well as public health, according to backers of the report.

A food safety bill that would increase inspections, fund research and force the industry to beef up its record-keeping cleared the House of Representatives last summer. A similar measure unanimously cleared a U.S. Senate committee in November. But momentum for the bill has stalled, as Congress remains embroiled in a fight over healthcare.

An official for a major produce lobbying group sounded a note of caution about the findings because they do not distinguish between illness caused by mishandling food in the home and sickness triggered by defects in growing, processing and distributing food.

Industry research shows that most illnesses are caused by consumer mishandling of produce, so the public shouldn’t expect food safety legislation to be a panacea, said Ray Gilmer, spokesman for United Fresh Produce Assn., a Washington, D.C.-based trade group.

Gilmer said his group supported both the House and Senate versions of the food safety bill, but “the legislation only addresses what the industry can do.”

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a key backer of the House bill, called the figure documented by the report “shockingly high.” DeLauro said she hoped “that the sobering numbers of this report will compel the Senate to act immediately.”

On Tuesday, Senate sources said there was still no firm date for a vote on the bill.

State lawmakers, however, have been trying to pick up the slack by pushing a flurry of food safety legislation. In the 2009-10 legislative year, 553 bills involving changes to food safety have been introduced in 48 states, said Doug Farquhar, program director for agriculture at the National Conference of State Legislatures. California lawmakers have introduced 37 bills, he said.

“This national push is not only coming from concerned consumers but the agriculture industry as well,” Farquhar said. “When it comes to food safety and the food business, it’s straightforward: When you have an outbreak, profits plunge.”