Finding Foodborne Illness Outbreaks Sooner, Faster

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If 25 people eating at a single banquet hall became sick and needed hospitalization, determining the cause could be as easy as checking the dinner menu. But if those same people were scattered across 20 states and became ill after eating food processed at a single site, identifying the link could sometimes be impossible. Hence the development of FoodNet, a program implemented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to collect and analyze cases of foodborne illness, such as salmonella and E. coli outbreaks.

Since 1996, FoodNet has led to a 42 percent decrease in salmonella infections and 40 percent reduction in Listeria infections reported Robert Tauxe, a foodborne disease expert with the CDC, speaking last week at the Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting in New Orleans.

In the mid-1990s, people thought we couldnt cut the cases of Listeria anymore, he said. Since then, we have cut them in half again. With better surveillance of outbreaks, we have illuminated problems that can be addressed and found a path to prevention of these illnesses.

Because of FoodNet, the CDC is now counting cases as illnesses happen, Tauxe said. Before, we were more passive and waited until doctors or clinical labs reported when they diagnosed a condition.

The problem with the earlier passive approach is that people sometimes forgot to report cases, said Tauxe. Now, the CDC contacts labs directly to ask what conditions they have diagnosed recently. The agency also conducts surveys of the general population, gathering information about illnesses that may not have been diagnosed in labs.


In the past few years, FoodNet has allowed the CDC to identify such difficult cases as 50 incidents of Listeria caused by poor handling of turkey meat at one plant, leading to an effective recall. In July 2003, FoodNet successfully linked 18 cases of illness spread over 14 states caused by marinated steaks vacuum packed by the same manufacturer.

We did the recall in two weeks, which is very quick for this type of situation, Tauxe said

FoodNet is so effective that similar systems are being developed in the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, and Brazil, Tauxe reported.

Source: Institute of Food Technologists