ISGP Podcast: C.S.Ecoli: Las Vegas

Now that the most recent E. coli outbreak has left the romaine lettuce sphere, have you ever wondered how food safety authorities investigate foodborne illness events? Why does it sometimes take months to determine the source of an outbreak?

Foodborne and waterborne diseases continue to be a major issue that account for more than 2 billion cases of illness and 1 million fatalities each year worldwide. Incidents of foodborne disease also carry a heavy economic burden: individual outbreaks frequently force small businesses to close and larger ones to spend millions on product recalls.

Investigations of foodborne illness outbreaks are almost entirely retroactive. They allow us to know what went wrong so that preventive controls can be put in place for the future and so we know where to assign blame when an outbreak occurs. However, these investigations don’t allow us to intervene because the majority of the contaminated food is usually consumed before the epidemiologic investigation has actually identified the cause.

In some areas, proactive mechanisms to help facilitate traceback have already been instituted. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (U.S. FDA) implemented a mandatory Reportable Food Registry (RFR), in which the food industry must report contamination issues discovered through its quality assurance programs. However, the global food supply is becoming increasingly complex because of a steady rise in food imports and exports around the world.

What are some of the solutions and who should bear the costs?

These were some of the topics during a discussion of the paper, Proactive Use of Supply Chain Data in Foodborne Illness Outbreak Investigation, by Prof. Shaun Kennedy, the Director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD) and Director of Partnerships and External Relations of the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The discussion was part of the ISGP conference, Emerging and Persistent Infectious Disease: Focus on Mitigation, which was convened in partnership with the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in October 2011.

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