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Produce-related illnesses account for $39 billion in annual costs, says report

by Joan Murphy | March 02, 2010
WASHINGTON -- With the U.S. Senate yet to take up a food safety bill, the Produce Safety Project is hoping a new report that finds foodborne illness costs to be $152 billion annually, including $39 billion attributed to produce- related outbreaks, will get lawmakers' attention.

The new study, Health-Related Costs from Foodborne Illness in the United States, attributes more than a quarter of the $152 billion total costs of foodborne illnesses to fresh, canned and processed produce.

Written by Robert Scharff, a former Food & Drug Administration economist and current Ohio State University assistant professor, the report found that produce accounts for some 19.7 million of the reported illnesses each year, at a cost of $1,960 per case, which is higher than other commodities.

The report also found California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania ranked top as the states with the most produce-related foodborne illness.

The $39 billion points to why FDA's produce safety rules and the legislation are so important, Jim O'Hara, director of the Produce Safety Project, told reporters in a March 2 teleconference. By taking into account healthcare, workplace and other economic losses, the report's estimates are "significantly higher" than any other published reports, said Mr. O'Hara.

This latest report should "compel the Senate to act immediately" on a food- safety reform bill, said U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who also spoke during the teleconference. While the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed a "strong, bipartisan food safety" bill in July, the full Senate has yet to vote on the bill, she said.

Because of recent recalls, the leafy greens market has not come back and people are reluctant to buy peanut butter. "People are scared," Rep. DeLauro said.

But the United Fresh Produce Association says the report misses the mark.

"It's really a shame that once again advocates for food-safety legislative reform are stoking unneeded anxiety about produce safety," said Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh. "This report inappropriately lumps together data from all foods and all food- contamination events, including those at church picnics and cross- contamination after sale to the consumer."

It also fails to take in consideration the reduction of outbreaks associated with major produce commodities, such as leafy greens and tomatoes, which have undertaken extraordinary steps to ensure safety, Mr. Stenzel said.

"The fresh produce industry is working tirelessly to grow and package the safest possible products, said Mr. Stenzel. "And, we strongly support national government oversight of produce safety standards to ensure a science- based, commodity-specific approach no matter where a product is grown."

Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Produce Safety Project seeks mandatory safety rules for imported and domestic fresh produce. The group is co-sponsoring four meetings to gather information for FDA in drafting produce safety rules, along with the National GAPs Program at Cornell University in Rochester, NY, the Food Animal Health Research Program at the Ohio State University in Columbus, OH, the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, and the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of Maryland.

The meetings are designed to encourage a robust discussion on the science of and practical considerations for growing, harvesting and packing of fresh fruits and vegetables, said the group.

(To view a full copy of the report and the state-by-state data analysis, log onto