Food Innovation Center

Collaborating for a healthier, hunger-free world.

Scharff Analyzes the Economic Costs and Risks of Foodborne Illnesses

Robert ScharffGrowing up just outside of Washington D.C., FIC member and Associate Professor of Consumer Sciences, Robert Scharff has always been interested in policy issues.  As a former FDA economist, he worked on food safety issues which set the stage for most of his research. 

 Scharff’s research focuses on the topics of food safety and obesity.  His most recent study investigates the economic cost of foodborne illness in the United States.

 Researching 31 different foodborne pathogens, Scharff estimates that foodborne illnesses cost society $77.7 billion a year, which includes values for medical costs, productivity losses, mortality, and pain and suffering.  Because there is no consensus over how to place a value on pain and suffering, Scharff estimates the cost of foodborne illness without this factor at $51 billion.  His next steps are to expand this research to include other costs (such as costs to industry and governments) and to  examine cost differences across the states.  Scharff also plans to expand his research internationally, beginning with an evaluation of the cost of foodborne illness in select Latin American countries. 

 Though Scharff is an economist, he expressed enthusiasm for collaborating with experts in all disciplines.  “The type of research I conduct makes it necessary to engage in interdisciplinary work.  If I need to know the outcomes of a foodborne illness, I must work with epidemiologists, food scientists, biologists, etc.”

 As a charter member of the Food Innovation Center, Scharff has collaborated on multiple FIC-sponsored projects. 

 The 2010 seed grant, A Transdisciplinary Approach to Obesity Prevention in Preschool Age Children, centered on obesity and ways to promote healthy foods in disadvantaged neighborhoods.  Because healthy food is expensive and hard to find in these areas, the research looked for solutions to these problems.

 The 2011 seed grant, A Comprehensive Costs and Benefits Analysis of Urbanizing Food Systems, involves making an initial determination of the economic factors associated with urbanized food systems.  The analysis will examine environmental, social and health costs-and-benefits of using locally grown urban food systems.  Ultimately, the study will move toward answering whether the net benefits from localized urban food systems are positive relative to reliance on global food supplies. 

 Scharff elaborated on the value of being a member of the Food Innovation Center:  “The greatest benefit of FIC for me is that it allows me to find researchers across the university with similar interests.  I have been able to collaborate with researchers from a number of different colleges and this process was sped up and made easier with their help.”

 Scharff graduated from Duke University with a Ph.D. in Economics in 1999 and received his Juris Doctorate from George Mason University in 2005.  He has been teaching at The Ohio State University since 2005.

Article written by Kayla Stucke
Posted March 23, 2012