The Economic Impact of Pathogens in Food Products
Pathogens in food products may result in foodborne illnesses. This occurs worldwide on a daily basis, with the subsequent recall of a product. As a result, illnesses cause clear economic impacts, due to treatment of the disease, lost wages and recalls, as well as the impacts of reduced sales and job losses.
Jobs and Wages Lost
A company in the United States has reported that it is laying off employees for the first time in its 100 plus year history, after a massive recall of their products due to Listeria monocytogenes contamination. The company stated that 1,450 employees were being made redundant (750 full time and 700 part time), with a further 1,400 on furlough. An additional 1,000 employees working to clean up the operations are receiving reduced wages for the duration.
In all, 14 distribution centre operations were suspended and 4 facilities producing the product were closed. The firm lost 37% of its employees because of the product recall.1 Overall, the recall is estimated to have cost the firm USD 130 million in lost revenue and another USD 50 million lost due to clean up and repair, as well as additional lost sales until the processing facilities are up and running again. This does not include revenue lost by the company’s suppliers, or the impact of the people who became ill, or those who died from this pathogen contaminated product. 2
In this situation, the firm may be able to survive the economic impact of this contamination, but not all firms are that fortunate. Many go out of business or are bought out by a competitor.
From February 2014 to February 2015, the Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom were collecting and testing fresh whole chilled chickens for Campylobacter.3 Campylobacter is commonly found on poultry and can cause diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal cramps. This is the leading cause of foodborne illness in the United Kingdom (UK).
In late 2014, when this information was published, it found that 70 percent of chicken in the UK was contaminated, and there was a subsequent seven percent reduction in production and a four percent reduction in sales.4 2014 it was estimated that campylobacter contamination costs the UK economy £900 million from illness and lost wages.5 The survey also revealed that 72.8% of the chicken skins tested were positive for Campylobacter. As a result, some of the retailers instituted a Campylobacter reduction programme with some retailers starting to sell chickens that could be cooked in their packaging, so the consumer does not have to handle the chicken until after the product was properly cooked, killing all the Campylobacter.
Estimate cost of Salmonella worldwide
A paper entitled ‘Emerging Infectious Diseases’ recently published by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, asserts that worldwide, Nontyphoidal Salmonella causes 93 million infections and 155,000 deaths each year.6 This results in an estimated 4,847,000 disability adjusted life years lost to the global population.
Salmonella enterica was associated with 29% of the salmonella infections in Africa. Two of these serovars of Salmonella enterica, typhimurium and enteritidis accounted for 65.2% and 33.1% of these infections respectively. Salmonella typhimurium is commonly associated with water contamination and sometimes food. Salmonella enteritidis is more commonly associated with food contamination.
There have been a couple of recent outbreaks of Salmonella enteritidis. The first was in late 2014, as a result of a bean sprout contamination that resulted in 115 people falling ill.7 This was followed in March and April of 2015 by an outbreak during which 100 participants in a junior hockey tournament became ill. 8 Previously in the US and European Union, Salmonella enteritidis outbreaks were associated with shell eggs and non-pasteurised shell egg products until strict rodent and hen manure control was instituted. While this cause of Salmonella has been reduced, it has not yet been eliminated. For example, in Australia salmonella from eggs is still an ongoing problem. As of March 1,895 illnesses were reported in Queensland, and annually over 10,000 illnesses from Salmonella are reported. 75% of the salmonella cases in Australia were the result of handling or eating raw eggs or products with raw eggs.9
The United States Department of Agriculture has highlighted the 15 most costly pathogens. Of these, they estimated that Salmonella cost the US economy about USD 3.7 billion, resulting in 1,027,561 illnesses, 19,336 hospitalisations and 378 deaths.10 This does not include the industry cost, the cost of sales lost because of loss of consumer confidence, recalls, law suits, testing for pathogens and the cost of government agencies investigating these outbreaks.
While we are still waiting for the World Health Organisation to publish the Global Burden of Food Diseases, the US foodborne illness economic burden is estimated at USD 77 billion to USD 152 billion, annually. A large number of prevention programmes and testing can be performed at a fraction of this cost. As various industries and governments have instituted programmes in order to reduce the burden with some success, there is apparently much more that can be done. While the industry must be more proactive in reducing some of this burden, some of it has to be done at the consumer level with proper handling and cooking of food.
1 The Dallas Morning News
2 U.S. Food and Drug Administration
3 Food Safety News (Year-Long Survey Finds Campylobacter on 73 Percent of UK Chicken)
4 Food Safety News (UK Sales of Chicken Decline, Possibly Due to Campylobacter News)
5 The Guardian (Revealed: the dirty secret of the UK’s poultry industry)
6 Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Emerging Infectious Diseases)
7 Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Salmonella)
8 European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
9 The Guardian (Push for Australia to take salmonella risk from eggs more seriously)
10 Food Safety News (USDA: Salmonella Tops List of 15 Most Costly Pathogens)