17 Aug 2010

Foodborne illness

According to this post foodborne illness costs us $152 billion a year in lost quality of life/medical expenses. Can anyone put this in context? Tyler Cowen mentions that if each of us has a quality adjusted life year worth $100,000 then our annual total "value" of life is on the order of $30 trillion. Thus $152 billion/$ 30 trillion is not very large.

The trend in this cost figure may be more interesting. I would guess that the trend in foodborne illnesses decreased with the intro of a fridge and associated understanding of pathogens, but then regrettably it appears (CSPI pdf) to be on the rise now. That seems odd given our steady trend in doing things that improve safety. I suppose it could also be an artifact of the data - the pdf above only has data from reported cases, and those are a small subset of those that occur. (When I got sick at a Chinese restaurant a couple years ago, I didn't really know if it was their fault or just mine from eating too much).

Eric Schlosser, of Fast Food Nation, sees these data and wants a new food safety bill to reverse this trend. His point is that we are importing more food from China, and they are not always giving us food. He is also concerned about the rise of corporate controlled food and factory farms. He calls for increased inspections and stronger recall authority for the government, which may improve the food supply from these factories, but at what cost? The fact that one large meat plant can sicken thousands indicates that there are costs to large meat processing centers, and food safety bills typically encourage bigger factories (they have an easier time complying with new regulations). Americans may prefer getting their meat from large, sterile slaughterhouses, but government interferes in this decision by encouraging such large production in the first place.

Bottom Line: Food safety has tradeoffs, and it seems that the result of increased food safety regulation has been more homogeneous, lower quality food from larger factories. That may be worse that the alternative.