A recent uptick in food poisoning outbreaks nationwide is actually the result of advancements in technology, which allow federal health officials to better detect and respond to cases of foodborne illness that may be impacting large numbers of Americans.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., issued a press release on foodborne illness detection on June 28, stating that new technology and strategies used to detect food poisoning outbreaks allows the agency to identify and react significantly faster and more effectively, which ultimately saves lives and prevents the further spread of illness.
Better detection of illness outbreaks has ultimately resulted in annual increases in food recalls, leaving some to wonder if food being distributed throughout the U.S. is becoming less safe, or if officials are getting better at identifying outbreaks that were untraceable before.
Gottlieb stated that simply counting outbreaks from year-to-year is not an effective way to determine if the number of outbreaks is increasing, decreasing, remaining steady or to determine if our food is getting safer or not. The better way to understand if food is getting safer is to determine how many individuals annually were sickened or killed in comparison to the years prior.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 50 million people a year are affected by foodborne illness outbreaks. Of those sickened, roughly 128,000 are hospitalized and approximately 3,000 die each year.
The supply chain for U.S. food is an extremely complex process with imported foods coming from more than 200 different countries, touching many different suppliers and distributors before it ever reaches the American consumer. Gottlieb states this can make identifying the source of contamination extremely difficult, but not impossible through development of new technology.
One of the most recent technologies the FDA and CDC have used to detect minor and major outbreaks is whole genome sequencing (WGS), which is a technique that can sequence and determine the entire genetic blueprint of a foodborne pathogen. This technology can link illnesses in different people and locations to reveal outbreaks with a level of precision never previously available.
One of the most recent outbreaks WGS technology was used to identify was the 2018 E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce from the Yuma, Arizona region. The outbreak resulted in at least 46 hospitalizations and caused 10 sickened individuals to develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, which is a serious type of kidney failure linked to food poisoning.
Officials were able to identify to identify samples from the Yuma region collected in the early stages of the outbreak and were cross checked with a similar strain of E. coli collected in canal water used to irrigate the lettuce products, thus determining the source of contamination. The outbreak has been deemed concluded as no further illnesses have been reported.
Although technology in foodborne illness detection has made significant strides within the last five years, Gottlieb stated the agencies are collaborating to expand their efforts with state and local authorities to strengthen the public health network that makes outbreak investigations faster and more successful.