Diagnostics Help Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Foodborne Illness Outbreaks

By the bioMérieux Connection Editors

Another day, another food recall. In 2019 alone, Americans saw chicken strips, ground beef, romaine lettuce, frozen meatballs, and bacon products recalled by The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Some people may think that the growing number of recalls is all in their heads or due to increased social media coverage, but in fact, the total number of food recalls in the U.S. increased by 10% between 2013 and 2018.

Should the rising number of recalls make consumers wary? A 2019 TIME article argues the opposite—companies are using innovative diagnostic testing and tracing methods to identify food-safety issues more quickly and accurately, and pulling items off the shelves accordingly to protect consumers. Jaydee Hanson, policy director at the Center for Food Safety, feels positively about food recalls. “You want things recalled before anybody dies. You want things recalled, ideally, before anybody’s sick,” he said on the topic.

Foodborne Illness: Damaging to Public Health & Brand Reputation

A foodborne illness outbreak occurs when two or more people get the same illness from the same contaminated food or drink. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in six Americans are affected by foodborne illness each year, resulting in 3,000 deaths annually. Foodborne illness can be life-threatening to people with weakened immune systems, including children, older adults, and pregnant women. Common symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, muscle weakness, stomach pain, and headaches.

While foodborne illness takes an obvious toll on the general public, it can also have a detrimental impact on food manufacturing companies and brands. In smaller cases, companies may voluntarily recall their products, and any case against them will be closed by the CDC or Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Larger cases, however, can lead to negative publicity, lawsuits, and in extreme cases, total collapse. In the age of social media, even the smallest recall or bout of food poisoning can go viral. In fact, there are so many posts about food poisoning that restaurants and food manufacturers are starting to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to monitor and track food safety issues through social media posts.

Diagnostics Are the First Line of Defense Against Foodborne Illness

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law in 2011, was enacted in large part as a response to the more serious recalls and dangerous foodborne illness outbreaks. FSMA helped to shift the focus to outbreak prevention rather than outbreak reaction. The law requires that companies abide by food safety best practices to prevent threats in the manufacturing or packaging process.

Microbiological and chemical methods like quality indicator testing, pathogen detection testing, microbial identification, and environmental monitoring are employed to help prevent foodborne illness and identify risks before products are shipped out. Lynette Johnston, food safety extension associate at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, was interviewed for labmanager.com on the topic of food safety testing and stated, “Improved surveillance and detection methods have helped improve responses from the food industry and government officials.”

The latest innovations in food safety testing have centered on mass spectrometry (in which molecules are identified according to mass), whole genome sequencing (in which pathogens are identified by analyzing DNA), and automated testing solutions. These advancements help the food industry obtain more accurate results in less time, helping to speed the process of producing safe food and supplying it to consumers.

Anyone Can Help Prevent Foodborne Illness

Even when proper diagnostic testing and quality control measures have been taken during the food production process, contamination can occur at any step on the food’s path to consumers, which means everyone has a role to play in keeping food safe. Long-term prevention of foodborne illness outbreaks requires action from every stakeholder in the food chain, from farm to table. According to the CDC, restaurant workers should be trained on proper food safety and sanitation measures and should not attend work when they are ill. Consumers should also be educated on proper food safety handling practices and adhere to routine hand washing when handling food.

When an outbreak does occur, the FDA’s Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) Network will work to control and stop it, which involves identifying the source and ensuring the contaminated food item is taken out of circulation. The CORE Network also has a Post-Response team, who work to understand how the contamination could be prevented in the future, ensuring an ever-improving food safety system.


Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of bioMérieux, Inc.

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