In-Depth Investigations of Foodborne Outbreaks Can Help Prevent New Ones

Pew collaborates with food safety agencies, companies to improve analyses of root causes

Young spinach

In 2006, public health officials traced a deadly E. coli outbreak to spinach and concluded that the contamination started in a field. Their analysis helped prompt farmers and federal agencies to adopt new safety standards for fresh produce.

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For those who produce our food and oversee its safety, understanding how and why a foodborne disease outbreak occurred is a vital step in avoiding future ones and reducing the estimated 48 million illnesses caused each year by Salmonella, E. coli, and other microorganisms. The Pew Charitable Trusts is working with federal food safety officials, representatives of food companies, and other experts to develop best practices for root cause analyses, a powerful but underused method to learn from past failures.

Encouragingly, the U.S. public health system continues to get better at identifying foodborne outbreaks—events when multiple reported illnesses are traced back to the same contaminated source. Thanks in part to technological advances that allow for the detection of smaller outbreaks, 902 foodborne outbreaks were caught in 2015, up from 801 in 2011. The nation’s enhanced surveillance capacity enables food businesses and government agencies to act faster to stop outbreaks and to find and address gaps in their prevention-based food safety practices and policies.

Once an outbreak has been identified, the most immediate goal is to pinpoint the contaminated food item as quickly as possible and remove it from the marketplace to limit the number of illnesses. These initial efforts focus on what made people sick. Learning how and why a product became contaminated and discovering ways to prevent these events from reoccurring is often of lower priority. For example, an investigation may find that a piece of equipment was not properly cleaned but stops short of determining the underlying reason that the facility’s food safety plan did not prevent such a failure.

Root cause analyses pursue answers to these underlying questions to inform the development of systematic remedies, such as fail-safe systems to account for the possibility of employee error. By erecting multiple safeguards, risks to consumers’ health can be reduced even if one or more of these measures break down.

Currently, the companies that produce our food and the primary federal agencies involved in food safety lack common definitions and uniform methods for analyzing the root causes of contamination. Leaders in both the private sector and government are now collaborating with Pew to reach agreement on best practices for this kind of investigation and to improve upon existing processes. The goal is to ensure that regulators and producers, regardless of size, have the ability to carry out this fundamental component of a prevention-based food safety system.

This effort will draw upon many resources, including successful root cause analysis models in other fields, such as air travel, nuclear energy, and chemical safety. These entities have designed protocols that allow for investigations of all sizes as well as robust information-sharing with industry and the public. Most importantly, their analyses have led to systematic solutions that have greatly improved the safety record in these sectors and enhanced the public’s trust in these technologies. Building on lessons from these examples and participants’ experiences, Pew looks forward to achieving similar improvements in food safety.

Sandra Eskin directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work on food safety. Karin Hoelzer, a veterinarian, works on Pew’s safe food and antibiotic resistance projects.

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