07/15/2013 - An outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg in 2011 sickened 136 people in 34 states, sending 37 of them to the hospital and leading to one death. Federal regulators did not identify the source of the foodborne illness until 22 weeks after the first person had become sick and 10 weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had detected the outbreak. The public health agency ultimately determined ground turkey processed at one of Cargill Meat Solutions Corp.’s plants was the source of the salmonella. The company pulled 36 million pounds of meat off the market in one of the largest recalls of poultry products ever.
The government’s slow response probably contributed to more people becoming ill and highlights weaknesses in how it detects and responds to outbreaks, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts report, “Too Slow,” which analyzes the 2011 outbreak for larger lessons and proposes improvements.
“Foodborne illnesses are preventable,” says Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s food safety campaign. “We must learn from our mistakes, and the report shows steps that state and federal public health officials can take that may allow them to more quickly identify the source of an outbreak, start a recall, and protect consumers.”
Salmonella causes more than a million foodborne illnesses every year and is responsible for more hospitalizations and deaths than any other type of bacterium or virus found in food. Its health-related costs to the nation run to as much as $11 billion a year. About 90 percent of all salmonella infections can be traced back to food, with contaminated poultry believed to be a main culprit.
But Pew’s analysis finds that public health authorities don’t prioritize outbreaks involving salmonella. The report identifies other concerns as well. DNA fingerprints of foodborne pathogens cultured from retail meat and poultry samples, which are collected as part of a federal antibiotic-resistance-monitoring program, don’t include identifying information including where the contaminated food was produced or even its brand name. And government agencies often wait until they are nearly certain of the food producer responsible for an outbreak before finally contacting that company.
Pew offers several recommendations in the report to improve public safety. Health officials should make salmonella outbreaks a priority by creating an enhanced surveillance system to identify them more quickly and so health authorities can interview patients as soon as possible. The antibiotic-resistance-monitoring program should include the name of the company that produced the food, the plant where it was processed, and the date it was purchased, along with the DNA fingerprints of bacteria from retail meat and poultry samples. That will help investigators more quickly identify the food that is causing an outbreak. Federal and state health authorities should also contact food companies in the early stages of an outbreak investigation to collect production schedules and other information that may help to identify the source and prevent more illnesses.
To read the full report, go to pewhealth.org/tooslow.