ABSTRACT for NYAS publication 11/18/2014 (View full presentation slides here)




Tanya Roberts, PhD Economics;; C: 240-505-6110

Chair, Board of Directors, Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention (CFI)


Private market incentives for food safety are relatively weak, because of the difficulty linking human illness to the causative pathogen and the food company.1 Food safety information is improving with new test and surveillance methods as well as new public and private control initiatives.  Better supply chain control systems are being invented and used from farm to fork.  Recent food safety innovations have been spurred by stringent standards demanded by large buyers—domestic and overseas—and by regulatory agencies.  However, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year 47.8 million Americans become ill and 3,000 die from acute foodborne illnesses.  CDC acknowledges, but does not estimate, the number of long-term health outcomes (LTHOs) caused by foodborne pathogens.2 Economists have estimated that the LTHOs cost society more than acute illness for several important foodborne pathogens.3 A conservative estimate of the costs of the foodborne illness burden on society are $78 billion annually in the United States, conservative since most LTHOs are not evaluated.4 Given the innovative pathogen tests that are cheaper and more sensitive as well as innovations in pathogen control from farm to fork, I believe that the cost of PREVENTING these human illnesses is significantly less than the public health burden to society for these acute and LTHOs due to foodborne pathogens.  In other words of Benefit/Cost Analysis, the public health protection Benefits are less than the Costs of pathogen control from farm to fork.


While new regulatory programs at FDA and USDA are improving economic incentives, the basic problem of linking human illnesses to the food & its company has not been addressed with modern technology.  The cornerstones of such a system are required pathogen tests from farm to fork, strict pathogen performance standards that require improvement from year to year, required mandatory reporting of legal liability cases involving foodborne pathogens, better funding of epidemiologic research identifying and enumerating LTHOs, and creating an integrated nationwide database to link pathogens to specific food products and to the companies that supply these contaminated foods.5  This linkage will give food companies the incentives they need to further improve their pathogen control systems. In addition, strict pathogen monitoring in foods from farm to fork will level the playing field for all food providers.  Now the bad actors causing foodborne illness are given a “free ride” as these companies are not held accountable for their actions and the damage they inflict on U.S. consumers.


1 Golan, E., Roberts, T., Salay, E., Caswell, J., Ollinger, M., & Moore, D. (2004) Food Safety Innovation in the United States: Economic Theory and Empirical Evidence from the Meat Industry, Economic Research Service, ERS/USDA, AER 831, 49 pp.

2 Scallan, E. et al. 2011:;  Roberts, T., Kowalcyk, B., Buck, P., Blaser, M.J., Frenkel, J.K., Lorber, B., Smith, J., & Tarr, P.I. (2009) The long-term health outcomes of selected foodborne pathogens.  Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, 24 pp.

3 Buzby, J.C. and Roberts, T. (1996) ERS updates U.S. foodborne disease costs for seven pathogens. Food Review, ERS/USDA, 19(3):20-25.

4 Scharff, R. (2008) Economic Burden from Health Losses Due to Foodborne Illness in US, J Food Protection, 75(1):123–131

5 Roberts, T. (2013) Lack of Information Is the Root of U.S. Foodborne Illness Risk. Choices. 2nd Quarter, 28(2); Roberts, T. (2005) Economic incentives, public policies, and private strategies to control foodborne pathogens. Choices, 20(2):95-122.




Tanya Roberts, PhD

Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention (CFI), Grove City, PA


At the University of Washington, I was introduced to economics and Benefit/Cost Analysis (B/CA) and found micro-economic theory and its applications very useful. I was fascinated by the intersection of public and private policy.  After conducting a Benefit/Cost Analysis (B/CA) of meat and poultry inspection at the Economic Research Service, USDA, I focused on food safety research and policy with an emphasis on what the public sector did best and what the private sector did best.  Economic incentives for businesses play a key role in sending signals to improve private food safety performance.  Much of my research has focused on the public health protection benefits of preventing acute foodborne illness and their long-term health outcomes.  In addition, I have researched food safety data availability from farm to fork, risk assessment and setting pathogen priorities, and innovations to improve pathogen control in food products. Collaborations with researchers in academia and the public and private sectors have given me a broad overview of food safety policy.  Currently, I am Chair of the Board of Directors with the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, a consumer advocacy nonprofit.