US report urges better foodborne disease monitoring

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Foodborne disease outbreaks Epidemiology Food safety

A new US report concludes that major gaps remain in many critical areas of preparedness for health emergencies, including foodborne disease reporting.

Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) have released the sixth annual Ready or Not? Protecting the Public’s Health from Diseases, Disasters, and Bioterrorism ​report.

This edition of the report found that 20 states did not meet or exceed the national US average rate for being able to identify the pathogens responsible for foodborne disease outbreaks in their states, and it references some of the more serious 2008 US health emergencies including the Salmonella ​outbreak in jalapeno and Serrano peppers that sickened 1,442 people in 43 states and the largest beef recall in US history in February.

"Monitoring the public’s food supply is a real world example of public health preparedness as it requires the same skills and technologies needed to detect and mitigate bioterrorism and infectious disease outbreaks,”​ states the report.

Foodborne disease reporting

According to the Ready or Not? ​report, between 2004 and 2006, the last year for which US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data was available at the time of publication, state public health departments reported a total of 3,548 foodborne disease outbreaks that sickened 74,077 individuals.

“Of the 3,548 reported outbreaks, state public health departments were only able to confirm the etiology, or causative pathogen, in 1,552 cases, or 44 per cent of outbreaks,”​ said the authors.

Identifying foodborne disease outbreaks requires regular submission of clinical isolates and specimens to state public health labs, continued the report.

The publication states that, in the opinion of the US Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL), hospital and clinical laboratories are sometimes reluctant to send isolates of foodborne pathogens to a state public health laboratory due to cost and time issues.

“Failure by these nongovernmental laboratories to submit isolates, specimens and samples could delay timely identification of an outbreak, prolonging exposure to the contaminated product and leading to increased incidence of disease,”​ claims the APHL.

State and local level invovlement

The authors of the Ready or Not?​ report argue that while much of the food safety debate has been over the reforms needed at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the focus should also be on coordination and collaboration with food safety regulators and health officials at the state and local level.

In order to strengthen the roles of state and local agencies, in both their community-based food safety efforts and as integral parts of the nation’s food safety system, the report draws attention to the planned series of RWJF funded meetings among state and local officials, their federal counterparts, and food industry and consumer groups.

Participants at these meetings, according to the report, will focus on:

  • Formulating and expressing a modern vision of the role of state and local government in an integrated, prevention-oriented food safety system;
  • Identifying gaps or constraints in current law, policy and practice at the federal, state and local levels that inhibit fulfilment of that vision;
  • Recommending changes in law, policy, and practice that are needed to enhance the effectiveness of state and local agencies in addressing food safety problems at the local, state, and national level;
  • Identifying specific opportunities to improve collaboration among state, local, and federal agencies; and
  • Describing current funding patterns and resource needs at the state and local level.

The project will disseminate a report in 2009, according to the Ready or Not? ​authors.

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