“In 2013, 818 foodborne disease outbreaks were reported, resulting in 13,360 illnesses, 1,062 hospitalizations, 16 deaths, and 14 food recalls.” – Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System
Foodsafety.gov, a website operated by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, defines a food outbreak as: “When two or more people get the same illness from the same contaminated food or drink.”
When a foodborne outbreak occurs, the government, specifically public health officials, initiate a systematic response in order to mitigate or prevent the spread of illness. Government officials have also created and utilized different information sources to keep the public abreast of what is taking place during any given outbreak, along with actionable steps that can be taken by consumers to prevent the contraction of a specific foodborne illness.
How does food become contaminated?
The food supply chain is a relatively long one in today’s society. As such, contamination is possible along any of the numerous steps in the process. The food supply chain can be divided into four categories that occur prior to consumption, when contamination is most dangerous. These four categories are production, processing, distribution, and preparation.
Production is simply the process of growing produce and raising animals to be eaten by human beings. An example of contamination at this stage is a farmer spraying crops with contaminated water. In this situation the crops, as well as any cattle that may have eaten those crops, are contaminated and therefore unsafe for human consumption.
Processing (or manufacturing) involves the transformation of food products by producers in order to transform them into their final retail form. Butchering meat and preserving produce are two common processing methods. Cross-contamination – which is defined as the spreading of bacteria from one surface to another – can occur during this stage.
Distribution is the transportation of food from the production or processing site to the consumer’s table. During this phase, it is possible for food to be mishandled or stored improperly, which can lead to bacterial growth and possible contamination.
Preparation is the process of getting food ready to eat. This is done by either the final consumer or an individual that cooks/prepares food for others. The mishandling of food or cross-contamination between surfaces is most common in outbreaks of this nature.
The response to a potential or confirmed food outbreak is always initiated on a local level. Depending upon the results of a local investigation, the response may extend to the state, and then potentially to the federal level.
At the federal level, there exist four primary food safety organizations that can potentially be involved in the investigation and response to an outbreak of foodborne illness: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The CDC is unique in that the agency is generally the first point of contact in the event that a state determines a wide-scale outbreak is possible.
The majority of outbreaks are local in nature and are therefore handled by public health officials concentrated in the affected area. As most instances of foodborne outbreaks are also relatively small in scale, most investigations begin and end with one city or county health department investigating and resolving the issue.
In the case of an outbreak that extends throughout multiple counties, a state’s public health officials will intervene. Among the participants in a statewide investigation are the state’s Department of Agriculture and Department of Health. In the event that state officials believe an outbreak potentially extends beyond its borders, authorities will contact the CDC.
Upon a state contacting the CDC, the federal agency will initiate an investigation in order to determine the scope of the outbreak – two or more states may be affected. Generally, CDC officials will lead the investigatory efforts up to closing of a case involving widespread, multistate outbreaks.
Collaboration between the CDC as well as the FDA, FSIS and EPA is common during a federal investigation. Because each agency has its own capabilities and jurisdictional responsibilities in terms of food safety, it makes sense that each federal agency would be involved in some capacity. Coordinated efforts are undertaken to determine the source of an outbreak, alert the public, and take appropriate measures to suppress further spread of the illness.
Additional actions taken in a food outbreak investigation may include evaluation of institutional (e.g. restaurants or processing plants) food safety efforts and the recall of food products.
In the past decade, state and federal governments have introduced websites that post up-to-date information on past and present food outbreak investigations. Additionally, the federal agencies mentioned all provide food outbreak information, including updates on ongoing investigations.