State and Federal Partners Work to Prevent, Contain Increased Multistate Foodborne Outbreaks

November 13, 2015|3:35 p.m.| Kristen Lewandowski

According to its November Vital Signs report, “Safer Food Saves Lives,” CDC identified 120 multistate foodborne outbreaks between 2010 and 2014, an average of 24 per year, up from a total of 34 multistate outbreaks between 1995 and 1999, an average of approximately seven per year.

CDC attributes the rise in outbreaks partly to better disease reporting, but also notes that the global economy’s ever-widening food product distribution network has greatly increased the potential for food contamination or improper storage. Disease experts are also seeing outbreaks originate with items that are non-traditional sources of contamination, including spices like pepper. CDC reports that salmonella, E. coli, and listeria are collectively responsible for 91 percent of all multistate foodborne outbreaks, but that in some cases, despite careful attempts at tracking, it can be difficult to find out which bacterium is responsible for a particular outbreak.

On Nov. 10, CDC followed up its November Vital Signs report release with the Vital Signs Town Hall teleconference “Working Together to Stop Foodborne Outbreaks.” Presenters included Dan Baden, senior medical advisor for CDC’s Office of State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support; Ian Williams, chief of the Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases at CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases; Tim Jones, state epidemiologist at the Tennessee Department of Health; and Michael P. Doyle, regents professor and director of University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety.

In his presentation, Jones noted that states vary widely in their number of outbreaks, partly due to their existing resources to fight disease (for example, their available funding to interview salmonella-affected individuals). However, Jones also remarked that cross-agency collaboration has significantly improved over the past few years, and CDC and other agencies have established centers of excellence for foodborne outbreak research, which bring many partners together to support outbreak investigations.

The panel of experts also described several strategies that the United States has developed over the past few decades to fight foodborne outbreaks, including PulseNet, a network of 87 laboratories across the United States that connects foodborne illness cases and recognizes patterns using bacteria “fingerprinting” (via a process called pulsed-field gel electrophoresis) to identify which germs are responsible for certain outbreaks.

In order to make progress toward reduced multistate food outbreaks, CDC recommends improving food safety guidelines and also encouraging customers to use grocery store loyalty cards so that CDC can request affected consumers’ permission to cross reference their purchased items to trace the source of an outbreak. CDC continues to both explore new technological processes and partner with public and private partners across the country to prevent and contain outbreaks. FDA also released new food safety rules today that aim to reduce foodborne outbreaks tied to produce and imported goods.

“Top-notch epidemiology and new gene sequencing tools are helping us quickly track down the source of foodborne outbreaks, and together with our national partners we are working with the food industry to prevent them from happening in the first place,” says CDC Director Tom Frieden.