The Costs of Food Poisoning

Dining at the venerable Harvard Faculty Club is a cherished tradition for many, including current and former faculty and alumni of the prestigious university. But this spring, over 300 people became ill with a norovirus,. The infection can be transmitted directly from person to person, but it is far more often spread through food which has been contaminated with the germs of someone infected with the disease. Noroviruses are so common, and so virulent, they account for more than 50% of all foodborne disease outbreaks in the US.

At the Harvard Faculty Club, over 40% of the staff became sick. For a period of time in March the club’s restaurant kept its doors closed; unfortunately, when it reopened and served Easter Brunch, it turned out the disease had not been eradicated. One professor who partook of the brunch ended up hospitalized for almost a month, including four days in intensive care.

The odds that an adult in the US has had food poisoning within the last two years are 1 in 2.38. Most victims survive with only a few very uncomfortable few days spent close to a bathroom. But sometimes, food-borne illness can result in devastating complications and even death. Stomach-churning strains of campylobacter, E. coli, salmonella, shigella, and listeria also account for many food-related illnesses, and occasionally food can be tainted by parasitic worms, viruses, unnatural and natural toxins (like the puffer fish’s tetrodotoxin), and even the odd piece of hardware.

The most notorious culprits, such as salmonella and E. coli, actually reside in animal digestive systems, which can make meats especially easy to contaminate; fortunately, 1 in 3.23 people concerned about the safety of fresh foods are already most worried about the safety of their meats, and tend to handle them accordingly. But that doesn’t mean produce is off the hook. In fact, even though only 1 in 6.25 worries most about the safety of his or her fresh vegetables and 1 in 12.5 about his or her fruit, produce contamination has become a major problem. At least 713 different fruit- and veggie-related illnesses occurred between 1990 and 2005, and several more recent outbreaks have likewise implicated these foods. There was the E. coli-tainted spinach scare of 2006, and then the salmonella disaster that implicated first tomatoes and then peppers in 2008. Early last year the massive peanut recall unfolded, a scandal that ultimately affected more than 3,000 different products.

A big part of the problem is that there are just too many fingers in the modern pot. By the time a meal gets to your stomach, its ingredients have probably traveled hundreds of miles, crossing state and/or national borders, depending on where it was grown, processed, packaged or served. Contamination, including from foods handlers carrying a norovirus, can occur anywhere in that sequence.

Estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlight just how dangerous that can be: per year, food poisoning sends at least 325,000 Americans to the hospital and kills an estimated 5,000Health costs from these illnesses add up to $152 billion, according to reports from the Pew Charitable Trusts. That’s not even considering the cost to industry: Peanut Corporation of America, the source of the peanut contamination, declared bankruptcy following its troubles, while the tomato industry estimates that it lost at least $100 million from its scare—and it may not even have been to blame.

Government bureaus like the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) try to stay on top of the revolving kaleidoscope of food production, relying on facility inspections and post-poisoning investigations. But overlapping jurisdictions, coordination difficulties, and inadequate authority, funding, and staffing hamper their progress. Progress in food safety, despite gains in the previous decades, has ground to a halt over the last few years, although there is a new flurry of activity in Congress to pass legislation that would provide the FDA with a more active role in food safety than ever before.

As for the Harvard Faculty Club, its restaurant is currently closed while it is completely sanitized and all the food is restocked.

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