However, norovirus does not result in the highest economic losses. While its $3.7 billion price tag in Scharff's enhanced cost is high, it doesn't come near the $11.4 billion cost associated with Salmonella (specifically Salmonella spp., Nontyphoidal). The difference is due to the fact that even though there are barely more than 1 million cases of Salmonella spp., Nontyphoidal a year, the bacteria causes more severe illness than norovirus, can lead to reactive arthritis, and results in an estimated 19,336 hospitalizations and 378 deaths.

Scharff also does a cost-per-case analysis, which he hopes might help in policy development. For example, although Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria associated with contaminated seafood (particularly oysters), causes just 96 illnesses a year, the illness is quite severe, hospitalizing almost all who contract it, resulting in 36 deaths. Because of its severity, it has the highest cost of nearly $2.8 million per case. Knowing such figures would be helpful for public health officials, particularly in Gulf Coast states where the disease is more prevalent, Scharff said.

"By knowing the costs associated with foodborne illness, we can compare the cost of programs designed to reduce such illnesses to the economic benefits that accrue from these programs. If a particular program results in, say, a reduction of 1,000 cases of salmonellosis each year, this means the expected benefit to society is something over $4 million or $11 million, depending on which method is used. If this same program only costs $1 million, we can say with some confidence that the program makes society better off."

Scharff is working with colleagues in Ohio State University Extension who offer food safety education as part of the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program to analyze costs and benefit of those classes. He is also applying these results in an economic analysis of the CDC's PulseNet public health laboratory system.

OSU Extension and OARDC, the research and outreach arms, respectively, of Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, offer food safety guidance for consumers, educators and health professionals at http://foodsafety.osu.edu. Food safety experts suggest that the most effective ways to prevent foodborne illness are to:

  • Wash hands properly and often.
  • Cook foods thoroughly.
  • Prevent foodborne pathogens from being spread through the kitchen.
  • Keep kitchen surfaces and utensils clean and sanitized.
  • Keep and store foods at safe temperatures.

For details, click "For Consumers" at http://foodsafety.osu.edu.