Solve Foodborne Outbreaks
Did you know you can help disease detectives detect and solve foodborne disease outbreaks? Learn some ways you can help protect others from getting sick.
Foodborne Illness Basics
Foodborne illnesses, or "food poisoning," are enteric (gastrointestinal) infections caused by food that contain harmful germs, like Salmonella, Escherichia coli, and Listeria. Most illnesses happen suddenly and last a short time, and most people get better without treatment. Foodborne illnesses can be more serious, especially for people at higher risk for complications.
Foods that are commonly linked to outbreaks of illnesses are meat and poultry, eggs, dairy, produce, and processed foods. Also, some types of animals or pets can carry these germs and can make people sick.
Foodborne Disease Outbreaks
Each year, about 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick from a foodborne illness. Many of these cases occur one by one, but some illnesses are part of outbreaks.
If a large number of people have the same illness in a given period and area, it's called a cluster. The cluster is called an outbreak when an investigation of ill persons in a cluster finds they have something in common to explain how they all got the same illness.
CDC uses three types of information to solve outbreaks caused by food: epidemiologic, traceback, and environmental information. Each piece of information provides another clue about what may be causing an outbreak.
Finding the source of an outbreak is important, because it still may be making people sick. By investigating outbreaks, we can stop them so more people don't get sick, and we can learn about what went wrong, to keep similar outbreaks from happening in the future.
How You Can Help
You play an important role in helping the network of people and organizations who investigate foodborne disease outbreaks.
Three ways you can help when you're sick with a foodborne illness:
- Report Foodborne Illness to Your Health Department
If you have a foodborne illness or got sick after contact with an animal, report it to your local or state health department.
Reporting your illness and symptoms helps your local or state health department identify potential foodborne disease outbreaks. Health departments track reports of illnesses and look for clusters of people with similar symptoms and exposures.
- Talk to Your Health Care Provider
Talk to your health care provider about testing you for foodborne illness.
Health care providers can order stool or blood tests that can tell them if you have a foodborne illness. These tests are sent to laboratories where germs are cultured (grown) from your sample and the results are uploaded to a database called PulseNet. PulseNet is a network made up of local and state public health laboratories and federal food regulatory laboratories that performs molecular surveillance of foodborne infections.
If you get sick, write down what you ate and what you did.
- Write Down What You Ate and What You Did
If you get sick from a foodborne illness, make a food diary and write everything down that you can remember eating in the days before you started to become ill, including any restaurants or special events you may have attended.
It is also important to write down any contact with pets or other animals you remember in the days before you got sick. Gather and save any food receipts you have kept from the grocery store, market, or restaurants. You may be asked to share these with investigators.
Usually, disease detectives interview ill persons over the phone to find out what they might have eaten before getting sick. These interviews include questions about different food items, food preparation, and places you may have eaten. They will also ask you about any contact with pets or other animals.
Keep your food receipts from the store, market, or restaurants.
Three ways you can help when you're not sick with a foodborne illness:
- Keep Food Receipts and Enroll in Shopper Card Programs
Keep your food receipts from the store, market, or restaurants. Routinely keeping food receipts from the store, market or restaurant can help you remember what you ate.
Shopper card programs at stores and markets can track your purchases and provide information on foods, brands and other details that can be very helpful to disease detectives during outbreak investigations. Investigators will only use your shopper card information with your permission.
- Keep Food Labels
If you buy food and freeze it, freeze the original packaging or label with the food. Freezing food with the original packaging or label helps identify what the food is and trace its source during an outbreak investigation.
Check out this infographic [2.87 MB] about how health officials solve foodborne outbreaks.
- Participate in Disease Detective Investigations
Sometimes during outbreak investigations, public health officials conduct an epidemiologic study called a "case-control study."
Officials interview sick people (cases) and healthy people (controls). The officials then compare the things the two groups ate and the things they did. If a public health official contacts you to answer questions about an outbreak, take the time to participate – you'll be helping with the investigation. The information you share may provide important clues to help disease detectives solve the outbreak and prevent others from getting sick!
Public Health Partners
Solving outbreaks requires a team effort. CDC foodborne disease detectives work with laboratorians in PulseNet, state and local health department officials, regulatory partners at the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other partners to ensure rapid, coordinated detection and response to multistate outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.
- Investigating Outbreaks
- Multistate and Nationwide Foodborne Outbreak Investigations: A Step-by-Step Guide
- Key Players in Foodborne Outbreak Response
- Lists of Selected Multistate Foodborne Outbreak Investigations
- Reports of Selected Multistate Outbreak Investigations Linked to Animals and Animal Products
- Gastrointestinal (Enteric) Diseases from Animals
- Food Safety at CDC
- Questions and Answers about Foodborne Illness
- Be Food Safe: Protect Yourself from Food Poisoning
- Salmonella Reporting Timeline
- E. coli Reporting Timeline
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration
- U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service
- Page last reviewed: June 14, 2016
- Page last updated: June 14, 2016
- Content source:
- National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases
- Page maintained by: Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Digital Media Branch, Division of Public Affairs