Study combines CDC and other data to reveal surprising results about the true costs of foodborne illnesses.

Ranking of foodborne pathogens, based on estimates of quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) loss and cost of illness, shows Salmonella as the most costly pathogen. Source: University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates one in six Americans get sick each year from food contaminated by any one of dozens of bacteria, viruses and parasitic protozoa. But which pathogens in which foods cause the greatest impact on public health? While this question is easy to ask, getting a good answer isn’t.

With the new FSMA legislation coming into law, regulatory agencies and processors alike are trying to develop risk-prioritization models to identify high-risk foods and facilities to make informed resource allocations. The starting point for implementing risk-based food safety systems is being able to identify where the greatest food safety problems lie, says Michael Batz, co-author of the report, Managing the Risks: The 10 Pathogen-Food Combinations With the Greatest Burden on Public Health, from the Emerging Pathogens Institute (EPI) at the University of Florida. Batz is head of food safety programs for EPI. Sandra Hoffmann and Glenn Morris, Jr. are the other co-authors.

To provide a means of comparing the risks posed by different pathogen-food combinations in the US, the authors developed a comparable set of estimates of disease burden for 14 leading pathogens across 12 food categories (168 pathogen-food combinations). The 14 pathogens represent more than 95 percent of the annual illnesses and hospitalizations, and almost 98 percent of the deaths, estimated by CDC due to 31 foodborne pathogens. For each pathogen, the report’s authors estimate health impacts in monetary cost of illness and loss of quality-adjusted life years (QALYs), a measure of health-related quality of life. These numbers allowed the authors to extrapolate several other metrics that are useful in risk considerations.

The report, which was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, includes the following key findings and recommendations for food safety officials:

  • Salmonella is the leading disease-causing bug overall, causing more than $3 billion in disease burden annually. In addition to poultry, Salmonella-contaminated produce, eggs and multi-ingredient foods all rank in the Top 10. The report recommends the FDA and USDA develop a joint Salmonella initiative that coordinates efforts in a number of foods.
  • Poultry contaminated with Camplylobacter bacteria sickens more than 600,000 Americans at a cost of $1.3 billion per year.
  • Four combinations in the Top 10-Listeria in deli meats and soft cheeses, and Toxoplasma in pork and beef-pose serious risks to pregnant women and developing fetuses.
  • Norovirus is the most common foodborne pathogen and is largely associated with multi-ingredient items that can become contaminated, often by service-industry workers who handle food.
  • The report lists E. coli O157:H7 as the sixth pathogen in overall burden, with the majority due to contaminated beef and produce.
For more information on good food safety practices or for a copy of the report, visit the Emerging Pathogens Institute website. Michael Batz, co-author of the report, is available to answer questions and can be reached at 352-273-7010 or via email.