A USDA report published earlier this month estimated that foodborne pathogens impose a $15.5 billion burden on the U.S. public annually. The report notes that there are 9.4 million foodborne-pathogen caused illnesses in the U.S. annually, despite the fact that government and the food industry “expend considerable resources in trying to prevent the foodborne illnesses.” The study found that over 90% of these cases are caused by just five pathogens. The annual economic burden was calculated based on the cost of each illness as well as any resultant medical treatment or deaths. USDA provides multiple caveats as to the calculation of the estimated burden – noting that the estimate is based upon incidences of these diseases. Incidences of such diseases, which often do not require medical treatment, are in turn very difficult to track and measure.

Studies such as this can help direct food safety policy – for example, the most economically burdensome foodborne pathogen is Salmonella (all nontyphoidal species were considered collectively), which typically lasts 4 to 7 day and presents as unpleasant symptoms typically associated with food poisoning. Approximately two percent of cases are severe enough to require hospitalization; and 98% of those hospitalized recover. Salmonella imposes an economic burden of almost $3.7 billion – $3.27 billion due to deaths, $81 million due to productivity loss, and $312 million due to medical costs. Implementing policies that specifically target the prevention of Salmonella will potentially be more economically beneficial and have a greater public health impact than addressing less common or less fatal pathogens.

In the case of Salmonella, CDC touts preventive measures such as milk pasteurization, treatment of municipal water supplies, thorough cooking of meat and eggs, and avoidance of cross-contamination of food. USDA has in place a Salmonella Action Plan, implemented in 2011 by Food Safety and Inspection Services, to address the threat of the bacteria in meat and poultry products.

The other “top five” pathogens, per USDA’s report, are Toxoplasma gondii, Listeria monocytogenes, Norovirus, and Campylobacter. In considering trends that may change this pathogen burden in the future, the report notes that the effect of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) will become evident over the next few years, and that certain provisions in the FSMA are meant to improve food safety management.