Twenty-two weeks. That’s how long it took federal health officials to determine the contaminated food source after the first person was infected in a 2011 outbreak of salmonella that swept across 34 states, sickened 136 people and led to one of the largest national recalls of ground turkey.
The headlines generated by that outbreak have faded. But the disturbingly slow trace-back time frame and other weaknesses — spotlighted in a new national report from the respected Pew Charitable Trusts — merit close scrutiny. The findings are especially valuable as landmark new federal food-safety reforms roll out.
The Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law in 2011 mandates efforts by both federal and state health officials to improve foodborne illness surveillance systems. While public health professionals are understandably focused on outbreak causes, there hasn’t been enough retrospective evaluation of where improvement is needed.
The Pew report adds to public efforts underway to do this. Its findings from its 2011 look-back don’t just highlight weaknesses in one outbreak but suggest opportunities for systemic improvement of surveillance and response.
Among its recommendations: Public health officials should notify and work with industry sooner when a company’s products may be involved in an outbreak. Additional information about food brands, processing plants and purchase dates should be uploaded to a key public health database used by disease detectives to monitor potential outbreaks. And, public health officials should put a higher priority on detecting potential salmonella outbreaks and understanding its transmission.
It’s worth noting that Minnesota’s world-class health and agriculture departments are the gold standard for outbreak investigation. But the state, which is home as well to world-class food processors and a thriving poultry industry, has a stake in ensuring that public health agencies across the nation are performing at the same level.