Hedgehogs or lettuce, outbreak investigations are complex

Hedgehogs or lettuce, outbreak investigations are complex

CHICAGO — Through a hypothetical outbreak scenario, a workshop at the United Fresh Produce Convention showed the considerable challenges federal investigators and regulators face when real outbreaks occur.

The three-hour session June 10 was moderated by Jennifer McEntire, vice president of food safety and technology for United Fresh, and looked at an outbreak scenario of an outbreak of salmonella typhimurium infections.

Main speakers in the session were Ian Williams, chief of the Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch Division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kari Irvin, Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation Network deputy director at the Food and Drug Association.

“When members call me with their concerns about outbreaks or rumors of outbreaks and they’re asking me questions, the people that I call to get information are Kari and Ian — these are the doers, these are the people in the know,” McEntire said.

She said there are often industry frustrations about the pace of outbreak investigations, and the workshop allowed some of those issues to be discussed in the context of a hypothetical outbreak.

The goal of the session, McEntire said, was to allow participants to understand the approach used by CDC, FDA and other public health and regulatory partners in multi-state foodborne disease outbreak investigations.

Williams said each foodborne disease outbreak presents unique circumstances.

“One of the things I can tell you after investigating literally hundreds and hundreds of outbreaks, is no two are the same,” he said. “So what we’re going to do today is to help you understand the approaches by CDC, the FDA, other public health and regulatory (officials). We’re going to expose you to both the science and the art of doing it.”

He said CDC and FDA spend a lot of time talking to one another during an outbreak.

“We actually have staff embedded in each other’s agencies to try to facilitate us being able to cooperate, to get to the source of the problem,” he said.

Often, he said, much of the difficulty is determining the correct source of the outbreak.

“The number of possible vehicles and the number of control points in the food system is enormous,” he said, noting that sources could be fresh produce, ground beef, livestock/animal contact and more.

“So when you start the outbreak (investigation), it could be the hedgehog or it could be the lettuce — how do we figure that out?”

The session explored how authorities use interviews with victims of an outbreak to determine its source, and how the FDA and CDC communicate with the public and industry during investigations.

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