By Julie Schmit and Elizabeth Weise, USA Today, March 6, 2009
The last few years has brought several foodborne disease outbreaks of national importance. In the summer of 2008, there was a salmonella outbreak involving hot peppers. In winter of 2009, a salmonella outbreak involving peanuts. Why are we hearing about so many outbreaks? One answer is that they are being detected more and more thanks to more sophisticated testing. But how are they detected?
Minnesota is a leader in foodborne illness outbreak investigation. Minnesota is one of ten states that receive extra funds to track foodborne diseases. These extra funds help the Minnesota department of health detect and respond to outbreaks at a faster pace.
What does foodborne illness outbreak response entail? First, complaints come into the local or state health department. In most cases, there must be at least two complaints to merit an investigation into the food product. When someone gets sick and goes to the doctor, a stool sample is collected which is sent to the public health lab for testing. If the sample is positive for salmonella or E. coli, “state investigators go to work.” The next phase is interviewing patients to find common foods eaten. The answers to these interviews are pieced together to find the source of the outbreak. In Minnesota, “Team Diarrhea,” a group of grad students, conducts the interviews.
This process seems straightforward enough.. so why the delays? Many health departments are underfunded or understaffed for foodborne illness investigation, and therefore they may have to prioritize between a foodborne illness outbreak and a whooping cough outbreak. Cited in this article, Tim Jones, epidemiologist in Tennessee, notes that “food safety is about the same everywhere” but the capacity to detect and respond to outbreaks is what differs.
The bottom line is that less money and less staff equals less investigation of complaints, less testing of samples, less inspection of sites, and decreased ability to respond to outbreaks, much less prevent them.