How much would you pay to know for certain that the food you are about to eat will not make you sick?
Diseases spread by foods strike an estimated 76 million people every year in this country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The illnesses are severe enough to lead to 325,000 hospitalizations each year, and an estimated 5,000 deaths.
But most food-borne illnesses are preventable. Ethylene gas can be removed during processing and electron beam irradiation can be employed to reduce contaminants.
The problem is, these processes and others cost money. So how much would you spend for safer food?
A recent study conducted by the Ohio State University and University of Maine looked at just that question.
Ohio State's Brian Roe and Maine's Mario Teisl sought to determine how much money people would pay to avoid the unpleasantness of getting sick from food. Other studies, including a 2008 analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, look only at how much money is lost to health care, missed work, and the like. The Roe and Teisl study tried to take in the whole cost, emotional and physical as well as financial, of what happens when people are sickened by their food.
The clever way of addressing this question was a survey filled out by a rather large sample of 3,511 people. Mr. Roe and Mr. Teisl presented the respondents with a hypothetical package of hot dogs or hamburger and then suggested a price for the regular package and a higher price for a package that had been treated in a way to eliminate such common food-borne pathogens as E. coli and listeria.
It turns out people have a limit to how much they will spend to be certain, or at least reasonably certain, that the food they are buying will be safe.
If the treated package is only 10 cents more than the untreated package, about 60 percent said they would go ahead and pay the extra dime. But if the cost for the treated package were $1.60 more, only one-third of the respondents said they would shell out the extra money.
This information leads to a couple of points. The survey apparently did not ask the 40 percent of respondents why they would choose the risk of food poisoning rather than pay the dime to make sure their food is safer. One reason, of course, is that many of them might not be able to afford 10 more cents for their food. But another reason could be that they figure that the likelihood of becoming ill from the food already is so slight that they need not pay more to reduce it.
Have you ever become sick from hamburger or hot dogs? How much would it be worth to you, per package, to assure it never happens again? Ten cents? Fifty cents? A dollar? Two dollars?
The same study suggests that, on average, Americans would be willing to spend a little more than a dollar per year for a 10 percent reduction in the possibility that the hamburger they buy at a supermarket will be contaminated by E. coli.
In total, that meant Americans were willing to pay $305 million for a significant, though not overwhelming, reduction in their risk of getting sick. And we would be willing to pay a total of $40 million (7.5 cents per person) each year to be 10 percent safer from the less common listeria pathogen in hot dogs.
It's not a lot of money, but then again, it's also not a whole lot safer. Technically, it would be possible to completely eradicate all food-borne pathogens from food. But experts agree the cost would be so high it could not be afforded.
How much would you pay?
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