Best Food Facts recently received a question from Marie asking, “It seems there were more food contamination issues in the past few years than usual. Is the problem growing?”
We’ve seen it in the news, too – Listeria outbreaks in cantaloupe, Salmonella in chicken livers and E. coli in ground beef, to name a few. To answer Marie’s question, we contacted Dr. Julie Albrecht, from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, for some insight on foodborne illness.
In the information that’s coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there’s actually been a decrease in foodborne illnesses. In 1999, 1 in 4 had a chance for foodborne illness, now that number is just 1 in 6.
Today’s technology has helped doctors and other experts find the source of foodborne illness, using a system called PulseNet, a national network of public health and food regulatory agency laboratories coordinated by the CDC. PulseNet participants perform standardized molecular subtyping (or “fingerprinting”) of foodborne disease-causing bacteria by pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE). PFGE can be used to distinguish strains of organisms such as Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Shigella, Listeria, or Campylobacter at the DNA level. DNA “fingerprints,” or patterns, are submitted electronically to a dynamic database at the CDC. These databases are available on-demand to participants—this allows for rapid comparison of the patterns.
It might appear as if there are more outbreaks because today, we know more about the outbreaks with the PulseNet system. In the past, we only knew about point-source outbreaks, the type of foodborne illness from one event. For example, a group of people who are ill after eating food at a potluck supper.
In the past, without PulseNet, widespread outbreaks would never have been found. Today’s detection methods are better, so it may seem like there are more outbreaks. There is also more publicity around the outbreaks in today’s fast-paced media, which helps to get the message out to consumer right away, so they don’t become ill.
For food safety tips, visit University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Food Safety Page http://lancaster.unl.edu/food/foodsafety.shtml.