Food Allergy’s Economic Burden on Families: $3,500 a Year

in Food Allergy, Peanut & Tree Nut
Published: September 16, 2013

Photo: Thinkstock
Having a child with a food allergy raises the expenses of an American family by a hefty $3,457 a year, according to a groundbreaking national study.

With 8 percent of American children now affected by food allergy, the study led by pediatrician Dr. Ruchi Gupta puts the overall economic burden of food allergy at $24.8 billion. The paper was published September 2013 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

“What I find exciting about this study is that we can finally better understand where the costs lie, and the fact that they are so high,” said Dr. Gupta of Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, the lead author of the study that surveyed 1,643 parents of food-allergic children. “And there are things we can do.”

Interestingly, costs borne by the health-care system only represent 17 percent of this national tally. Dr. Gupta and her colleagues attribute a staggering $20.5 billion in costs directly to families: lost job opportunities and labor productivity in caring for food-allergic children (especially among mothers) and increased out-of-pocket expenses such as paying for special foods, child care and co-payments.

Dr. Gupta was surprised that the costs were so high, but was less shocked by the fact that a majority of the expenses were borne by families, noting that food allergies don’t typically require long hospital stays that will drive up medical costs.

Lost opportunities at work accounted for the greatest economic burden to families, totaling $14.9 billion, or $2,529 per child annually. This figure includes both lost productivity from missing work to take a child to an allergist, pediatrician or emergency department ($773 million), as well as the costs associated with having to change (or give up) a job in order to care for the child with food allergy ($14.2 billion).

When it came to medical costs, hospital stays (for those having reactions) were the largest item, accounting for $1.9 billion of the $4.3 billion. Other costs to the health-care system included trips to allergists, pediatricians or the emergency department.

Looking at the overall $24.8 billion price tag, John Lehr, CEO of FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), said: “With more and more people being diagnosed with food allergy each year, we are likely to see this cost rise. Raising awareness, educating the public and investing in research to find a cure for this potentially life-threatening disease are imperative.” FARE provided funding for the study.

Yet Dr. Gupta is optimistic about the possibility of reducing the economic burden, especially on families. “When you look at out-of-pocket costs, what’s interesting is that a lot of the money is going to specific foods – special-diet foods,” she said, noting that a clear law on ‘may contain’ labels would be one way to reduce time and expense for people shopping for allergic children.

“The more we can help educate and put policies in place to keep these kids safe, I think a lot of these costs are easily reducible,” she said

Dr. Gupta is well-known for her studies of the food-allergic population. In 2011, her research determined that 8 percent of American children and youth under 18 years of age have food allergies.

Yearly Economic Costs to U.S. Families with Food-Allergic Children*

Lost labor opportunity cost: $14.2 billion
Lost job productivity cost: almost $1 billion
Out-of-pocket costs (foods, medication etc.): $5.5 billion
Total costs borne by families: $20.5 billion
Total costs to health-care system: $4.3 billion
Total cost overall: $24.8 billion

*From the Sept. 16, 2013 edition of JAMA Pediatrics