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Study Finds Leafy Greens Responsible for Significant Portion of U.S. Foodborne Illnesses and Costs

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Researchers from The Ohio State University, led by Xuerui Yang and Robert Scharff, have conducted a study on the attribution, burden, and economic costs of foodborne illnesses associated with leafy greens in the United States. The findings shed light on the substantial impact of these vegetables on public health and the economy.

Leafy green vegetables, such as lettuce, spinach, and kale, are widely consumed and recognized as major sources of foodborne illnesses. The study aimed to provide comprehensive estimates focusing on the attribution and burden of illness associated specifically with leafy greens.

Combining data from three outbreak-based attribution models with illness incidence and economic cost models, the study developed detailed estimates for leafy greens and their subcategories. It reveals that leafy greens are responsible for up to 9.18 percent of foodborne illnesses caused by identified pathogens, with an estimated annual incidence of up to 2.3 million illnesses in the United States.

Economically, these illnesses impose a substantial cost, amounting to up to $5.278 billion annually. The most common pathogens associated with leafy greens include Norovirus, Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC), Campylobacter, and nontyphoidal Salmonella. Lettuce, in particular, accounts for the highest percentage of outbreaks, illnesses, and costs among leafy greens.

Romaine lettuce stands out significantly, with nearly 20 percent of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O157:H7 illnesses in the United States linked to its consumption. This equates to an estimated 12,496 illnesses and $324.64 million in costs annually.

The study underscores the critical need to address food safety issues related to leafy greens, given their widespread consumption and substantial contribution to foodborne illnesses and economic burdens. It emphasizes the necessity for targeted interventions and regulatory measures to mitigate risks associated with consuming leafy greens.

While providing valuable insights into the attribution and burden of illness associated with leafy greens, the study acknowledges limitations, including the reliance on outbreak data, potential underestimation of illnesses, and challenges in identifying specific food ingredients in complex foods. 

Source: FSN 

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