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Centers for Disease Control

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is made up of public health practitioners and leaders that are dedicated to high standards of health and ethics. The CDC aims to provide credible, scientifically-based information to public health officials and regulatory agencies, so they can enhance public health policies.

With regards to food safety, the CDC works closely with state and local health departments to monitor and investigate foodborne illnesses. The CDC collects and organizes outbreak information and acts as a national reference laboratory to identify and catalog pathogens that cause food poisoning.

Through tracking foodborne illness outbreaks, the CDC is able to help implicated restaurants locate the exact source of contamination. As with the summer 2008 salmonella outbreak, many consumers and restaurants were fearful of serving certain products until the contamination was traced to a pepper farm in Mexico.1 This information allowed businesses to purchase safe products and assure patrons of the quality and safety of their food.

Monitoring Foodborne Illnesses

The CDC is always working to offer comprehensive, organized information on food-related health. Two of the recent surveillance tools being employed are OutbreakNet and FoodNet.

OutbreakNet

The role of the OutbreakNet Team is to conduct national surveillance on foodborne infections and outbreaks of foodborne illness and to assist in the investigation of foodborne disease outbreaks that take place in the United States or affect its population.

OutbreakNet works closely with public health officials to collect foodborne illness information submitted by each state and to make the information easily available to the public.

FoodNet

FoodNet is a collaborative project between the CDC, FDA and USDA that seeks to provide food poisoning information to public health officials so they can better understand the foodborne illnesses affecting the United States.

Investigating Foodborne Illnesses
Outbreak Defined
A foodborne illness outbreak occurs when two or more individuals contract food poisoning from the same source.

Though the United States enjoys one of the safest domestic food supplies in the world, there are occasional outbreaks of food poisoning. The CDC estimates that there are 76 million cases of food poisoning in the U.S. each year.2 Each outbreak is an indication that something needs to improve with our food safety procedures.

Once a widespread outbreak is suspected, the CDC begins its investigation using the following procedures:

  • Search for other possible exposed individuals. Through interviews and mapping the suspected contaminated population, the CDC compiles a demographic of other individuals who have contracted the illness.
  • Obtain samples to identify the organism responsible. If the bacteria responsible for the outbreak are not known, blood samples may be drawn from infected people to identify the culprit.
  • Identify the contaminated food. During their initial interview, CDC investigators will gather a list of foods that the individuals have eaten in the previous couple of days to try and identify a common food consumed by all infected individuals.
  • Test suspected foods. With the interview and blood sample results in hand; the CDC will begin to test common, suspect foods to see if the organism responsible for the outbreak can be detected.
  • Act upon the immediate outbreak. Whether it involves closing down a restaurant until they pass a health inspection or pulling all suspected foods from grocery shelves, once the responsible food item is located, officials will take action to contain the outbreak.
  • Trace the ingredients. Once the responsible food item is found, the CDC investigators will attempt to trace the ingredients to their source, to determine if a larger population may be at risk.

An outbreak is considered over when all known exposure to the microbe has ceased, the outbreak is considered over. This can either happen when all contaminated food has been eaten or recalled, after the restaurant responsible is closed to clean up its act or when an infected handler is no longer contagious.

1 U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Salmonella Saintpaul Outbreak,” http://www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/tomatoes.html (accessed November 4, 2008).
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Food Safety Office,” http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/ (accessed October 19, 2008).