‘Infodemiology’ on the rise to tackle foodborne illness outbreaks

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

‘Infodemiology’ on the rise to tackle foodborne illness outbreaks
Analyzing the distribution, or epidemiology, of foodborne illnesses is a standard tool in controlling outbreaks, but infodemiology – the analysis of information distributed on the internet – could help minimize the impact of outbreaks in the future.

Speaking at the recent Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) conference in Orlando, Florida, outgoing conference chair and vice president of food safety at Walmart, Frank Yiannas, said that infodemiology is emerging as a powerful tool in controlling the spread of foodborne illness.

“The world is getting smaller and recalls are getting larger,”​he said, referring to the fact that as more foods and ingredients are distributed over a wider area, faster than ever before, the impact of food recalls has broadened.

“In 2011, we had the world’s largest E. coli outbreak in Germany and the first time listeria had been connected with cantaloupes – both in 2011. I believe food safety is at a crossroads.”

Yiannas said that one example of infodemiology in action is PulseNet, run by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), which analyzes DNA subtypes of various pathogens identified in laboratories across the United States. It was PulseNet that meant small clusters of salmonella illnesses caught the attention of the CDC back in 2008, which were then found to be connected to peanut products from the Peanut Corporation of America – a salmonella outbreak that was eventually linked to more than 700 reported illnesses and nine deaths.

However, without PulseNet, these small clusters of illnesses may not have been picked up so quickly. The number of peanut products recalled soared to 3,913 before the outbreak was over, and the episode was a major trigger for the development of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.

“I would argue that if this event had happened five to ten years ago, this would never have happened,”​said Yiannas.

Social media

But infodemiology could also be used to track patterns in internet users searching for similar foodborne illness-related terms on search engines, or Twitter users discussing their symptoms via tweets. One of the most recent examples of a live-tweeted outbreak involved student journalists in Canada who used Twitter in January to report a norovirus outbreak at a conference in British Columbia.

“By the time health experts report an outbreak it’s pretty late into the epidemic curve,”​Yiannas said.“Social media is changing the way we do business, but I also think it’s going to change the way we deal with food safety.”

Just this week, the Food Safety Inspection Service unveiled a system of state-specific food safety Twitter feeds​ to help US consumers identify affected products and prevent potentially lethal foodborne outbreaks.

Yiannas added that a staggering 1.8 million people die every year as a result of foodborne illness – and contrary to what some may think, it is not just a problem for developing countries.

In the United States, one in six people fall ill from foodborne illness each year, 375,000 are hospitalized, and about 3,000 die, according to the latest CDC figures.

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