Outbreak example of nation's 'largely broken' system, Osterholm says

At a congressional hearing he suggests that the nation's food-investigation system be modeled after Minnesota's.

Last update: July 30, 2008 - 11:47 PM

Source of Article:  http://www.startribune.com/local/26124594.html?location_refer=Local%20+%20Metro:highlightModules:5

 

WASHINGTON - Mike Osterholm, former Minnesota state epidemiologist, said Wednesday that a recent salmonella outbreak exemplifies the country's "largely broken" state and local food illness investigation system. He said the system needs major updates to prevent future outbreaks.

Osterholm spoke at a House subcommittee meeting that reviewed the country's capacity to trace fresh produce. The recent salmonella outbreak sickened more than 1,300 people in 43 states and Canada, and still poses unanswered questions.

Although solving nationwide food-borne illnesses relies heavily on federal efforts, Osterholm said local and state public health departments play a vital role in detection. Uneven response, due to varying expertise and resources, played a serious role in the slow and often-muddled salmonella investigation, he said.

Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, proposed modeling the national system after Minnesota's, which traced the salmonella strain to jalapeno peppers in less than two weeks.

"Insufficient product traceability, inadequate food protection planning and inadequate inspection and trace-back capacity" at the federal level led to illness and public confusion and halted many fresh produce industries, Osterholm said.

Investigators originally focused on tomatoes as the possible culprit, but as the outbreak continued to baffle federal officials, Minnesota Department of Health investigators traced the strain to jalapeno peppers.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has confirmed contaminated Mexican jalapeno and serrano peppers, but officials said there still could be more unconfirmed sources.

David Acheson, FDA associate commissioner, said this outbreak shows the complexities of tracing illness in fresh produce. Much of the perishable produce is grown on farms around the world, passes through many packing and processing chains and is already discarded when illness is detected, he said.

Data on food-borne illness outbreaks can't always be easily centralized because of varying state resources. It takes about three days in Minnesota, but in many states it can take more than five weeks, Osterholm said.

To help prevent and solve future outbreaks quickly, he recommended federal agencies model their system after a group dubbed "Team Diarrhea," which includes Minnesota public health students who interview patients and worked on the current case.

"We believe a series of regional Team Ds or a national Team D would go a long way to providing precisely the real-time support for outbreak investigations at the state and local levels that is so sorely needed," he testified. Osterholm proposed that the U be the lead institution in implementing a Team D system nationwide at a cost of up to $100 million every year.

Said Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif.: "You could describe our current food safety system as 'outbreak roulette'; one spin of the outbreak wheel and your industry may be bankrupt, your loved ones sickened. This is unacceptable."

Data on food-borne illness outbreaks can't always be easily centralized because of varying state resources. It takes about three days in Minnesota, but in many states it can take more than five weeks, Osterholm said.

To help prevent and solve future outbreaks quickly, he recommended federal agencies model their system after a group dubbed "Team Diarrhea," which includes Minnesota public health students who interview patients and worked on the current case.

"We believe a series of regional Team Ds or a national Team D would go a long way to providing precisely the real-time support for outbreak investigations at the state and local levels that is so sorely needed," he testified. Osterholm proposed that the U be the lead institution in implementing a Team D system nationwide at a cost of up to $100 million every year.

Said Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif.: "You could describe our current food safety system as 'outbreak roulette'; one spin of the outbreak wheel and your industry may be bankrupt, your loved ones sickened. This is unacceptable."

 

 

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