Foodborne Illness and Outbreak Investigations
A Farm to Table Overview
In the United States, an estimated 48 million foodborne illnesses occur each year. A foodborne illness is caused by eating or drinking a contaminated food or beverage.
When two or more people get the same illness from the same contaminated food or drink, the event is called a foodborne outbreak. Illnesses that are not part of outbreaks are called "sporadic."
More than 250 pathogens and toxins are known to cause foodborne illness. Nearly all of them can cause an outbreak.
Here, we explain the importance of tracking foodborne illness and provide a farm to table snapshot of how the public health community detects, investigates, and controls foodborne outbreaks.
Foodborne illnesses are caused by pathogens and toxins (chemicals). Pathogens are germs, such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites, that can cause illness. More than 250 pathogens and toxins are known to cause foodborne illness. Nearly all of them can cause an outbreak.
Many types of foods can become contaminated. Some of the foods that have been linked to outbreaks are eggs, fish and shellfish, meat, nuts, poultry, raw (unpasteurized) milk, and raw fruits and vegetables.
It takes several steps to get food from the farm or fishery to the dining table. We call these steps the food production chain. Contamination can occur at any point along the chain—during production, processing, distribution, or preparation.
The size and scope of a foodborne outbreak can vary based on which pathogen or toxin is involved, how much food is contaminated, where in the food production chain contamination occurs, where the food is served, and how many people eat it.
Which agency or agencies participate in an investigation depends on the size and scope of the outbreak. Most reported foodborne disease outbreaks involve only one state and are investigated by local or state public health agencies.
In recent years, large multistate or nationwide foodborne outbreaks have become more commonly recognized.
The ultimate goal for public health and food safety officials is not just stopping outbreaks once they occur, but preventing them from happening in the first place.