Based on the onset date profile graph posted by CDC, this outbreak shows every sign of winding down. And late yesterday afternoon, FDA announced the first isolation of the outbreak strain of Salmonella Saintpaul from a sample of produce – a jalapeño pepper imported from Mexico by Agricola Zaragoza, an importer/distributor based in McAllen, Texas. Zaragoza has recalled all of the jalapeño peppers shipped to its customers since June 30th.
Now that CDC and FDA are moving into the "mopping up" phase of this outbreak, we can start to tally what Salmonella Saintpaul has cost the US economy. We can – very conservatively – calculate the cost based on the actual number of lab-confirmed cases. We can also determine an estimated cost by extrapolating the lab-confirmed cases to include cases that were never reported to CDC. First, though, we need to determine a cost per case.
Cost Per Case
Fortunately, a group of Canadian researchers studied the cost of gastroenteritis in Hamilton, Ontario (a mid-sized Canadian city with a well-respected teaching hospital). The study, which appeared in Journal of Food Protection in 2006, produced an estimated cost of CDN$1,089 per case. That figure included treatment costs, lost wages, and other concrete costs; it did not take into account "intangible" costs.
The Canadian estimate is more than two years old, but it is the best available. Medical costs, transportation costs and wages all have risen since then; however, we'll be conservative and use the Canadian data without adjusting for inflation. As the Canadian and US currencies are – essentially – at par, we can ignore any minor currency differences.
Cost of Lab-Confirmed Cases
At a cost per case of $1089, the 1,251 lab-confirmed cases tallied by CDC to date have cost the US economy approximately $1.36 million.
Cost of Estimated Number of Total Cases
The 1,251 lab-confirmed cases of Salmonella Saintpaul are only the tip of the outbreak iceberg. CDC estimates that there are 38 cases of Salmonella infection for every case that CDC hears about. That would put the actual size of the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak at 47,538 cases. On that basis, this one outbreak has cost almost $52 million so far.
These calculations do not include the costs incurred by the US tomato growers, who have been devastated by this outbreak. Nor do they include the investigation costs incurred by FDA, CDC and state agencies.
Annual Cost of Food-borne Disease to US Economy
While on the subject, we also can estimate the annual cost of food-borne diseases. The most recent estimate – published in 1999 and long overdue for an update – is 76 million cases of food-borne disease each year. This translates – based on our cost/case estimate of $1,089 – to an annual cost to the US economy of more than $82.7 billion dollars.
To put these numbers into perspective, the entire FDA budget for the current year – including foods, drugs, and devices – is just $2.1 billion dollars. That's less than 3% of the annual cost of the food-borne diseases that FDA (and to some extent USDA) is mandated to prevent!
It's time to rethink the US strategy for attaining a safe food supply. The present system is a patchwork quilt of overlapping jurisdictions. It has been outgrown by rapid changes in the domestic food production and food processing industries, and by an exponential increase in food imports.
I propose that the next President form an independent Food Safety Commission. The Commission should be non-political (as opposed to by-partisan), and should receive testimony, briefs and proposals from industry, academia, consumers and regulators. The mandate should include:
- Determine a current estimate of food-borne disease in the United States;
- Recommend improvements to the current methods for reporting illnesses and detecting incipient outbreaks;
- Review the present US food safety regulatory structure and compare its effectiveness with food safety regulatory structures adopted by other countries; and
- Propose a new US food safety regulatory structure designed to respond more effectively to the current state of the US domestic and imported food supply.
Bill Marler, are you listening?