NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Recent news reports have been unsettling for those doing the food shopping. A threat of "mad cow" disease last week forced the recall of over 4,000 pounds of fresh beef products originating from a Missouri processor and shipped to restaurants and a Whole Foods distribution center servicing stores in New England. An anti-biotic resistant super bacterium was found in South Korean squid sold in Canada. Meanwhile, a prolonged drought in California is threatening nearly half of the U.S. produce output.

America's food supply is fragile and under threat. Evolving bacteria strains, improper food handling, storage and preparation are among the main causes – as well as climate change. Rising temperatures, less rainfall and volatile weather could reduce food production and cause dramatic price increases. Consumers have seen the effects already, with record-high beef prices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says grocery prices are expected to rise even more -- up to 3.5% this year.

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But it's not only our pocketbook that is suffering, more importantly it's our health. The University of Florida's Emerging Pathogens Institute (EPI) says one in six Americans fall ill from eating contaminated food --- pathogens such as bacteria, viruses or parasites. Most victims suffer from a "stomach bug" that passes in a short time, requiring no medical attention. However each year 100,000 people suffer serious food poisoning that results in a hospital stay – and an estimated 3,000 fatalities annually.

Researchers at the EPI found that 14 food pathogens cost the United States economy $14 billion a year in human disease, but more than 90% could be traced to just a handful of pathogens found primarily in poultry, pork, deli meats and dairy products.

Salmonella is the primary culprit, resulting in the greatest number of deaths and the highest cost burden.

"It is one of the few food borne pathogens for which illnesses have not significantly declined over the past 10 years," the EPI report says. "Although salmonella is usually associated with poultry, this pathogen can be found in a wide range of foods regulated by both the FDA and the USDA, including produce -- notably tomatoes, cantaloupes and sprouts -- eggs, beef and pork. [But] poultry causes more food borne disease than any other type of food. Contaminated poultry is responsible for $2.4 billion in costs of illness."

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While E. coli is a high-profile health concern, it ranks sixth among threats to the food supply. Its main impact is among young children who can suffer kidney failure and other life-long medical conditions. While the report says the American food supply is "not safe enough," it notes that the current system can be improved by targeting the worst pathogen-food combinations.

"Food safety experts have long identified inadequacies in the current fragmented system, one that lacks evidence-based methods of targeting the biggest food safety problems," the report concludes. "Of the estimated 50 million cases of food borne illness each year, most are preventable."

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet