The Cost of Food-Borne Illnesses

The Cost of Food-Borne Illnesses

Jul 09

The rise of our industrial food system has also brought an increase in food-borne illnesses, like e. coli and salmonella infections. According to this Washington Post article, 100,000 Americans are hospitalized due to food-born illnesses and 3,000 of them die! It cites a recent study comparing the cost of various illnesses to American taxpayers, about half of which are carried in or cause by meat.

The top ten of these food-borne pathogens cost us roughly $8 billion annually. To put that into perspective…

  • Federal funding for low-income school districts: $16 billion
  • Federal funding for the Farm Service Agency: $9.8 billion
  • Annual retail value of the beef and chicken industries combined: almost $120 billion

(See the New York Times infographic for the 2012 budget proposal for these figures.)

Although it’s easy to ignore nebulous figures like this that are so far removed from our individual pocketbooks, it’s important to remember that these are the hidden costs of cheap food. The $8 billion dollars we spend to treat food-borne illnesses could be spent to teach your children more efficiently, improve the roads you drive on every day, or provide much-needed equipment to the brave soldiers keeping us free to keep fighting food-borne pathogens.


  1. Laura V.

    In my IFAS course today the teacher asked how many of us in the room, 20 people in total, had ever had a food born illness. 18 out of 20 raised their hand, and then the teacher commented that it’s almost sure that the other two people had had one but just chalked it up to a ‘stomach flu’ or ‘stomach bug’. It’s just assumed these days that everyone will get a food born illness at some point, probably more then once. That’s awful! Not to mention really dangerous!

  2. Rachel

    I just did the math…there 311M some odd people in the US, which means it costs about $25/person spent on food-borne illnesses. I totally thought it would be more…

    Always interesting to see who does (or does not) support the troops. I’m glad you value what the soldiers do!

    • I don’t think there are many people who don’t support the troops, but I think there are a lot of people who don’t support the government’s use of the troops and confuse the two sentiments. Just because I don’t agree with the mission doesn’t mean I don’t support the brave men and women who signed up for it and are doing a heroic job every day.

      As for the money, I think it’s deceptive to distill it down to a per-person figure. I know that I, for one, have not been sick from food this year, so I didn’t use up $25. You should divide that amount of money by the people who actually fell ill from a food-borne pathogen. For instance, only about 100,000 people are hospitalized due to food-borne illness! The article says that on average 1 in 6 Americans get sick from food, so a more accurate per-person number would be $155, but again, that doesn’t account for the disparities between people who get really sick and people who just feel bad for a couple days and get over it.

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