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Solve Foodborne Outbreaks

Did you know you can help disease detectives find and solve foodborne disease outbreaks? Learn some ways you can help protect others from getting sick.

Foodborne Illness Basics

Foodborne illness, or food poisoning, is an enteric (gastrointestinal) infection caused by food that contains harmful germs, such as Salmonella, Escherichia coli, or Listeria. Most illnesses happen suddenly and last a short time, and most people get better without treatment. Anyone can get food poisoning, but certain groups of people are more likely to get sick and have a more serious illness.

Foodborne Disease Outbreaks

Each year in the U.S., about 1 in 6 people (or 48 million) get sick from a foodborne illness. Many of these illnesses occur one by one, but some are part of outbreaks. Foodborne disease outbreaks have been linked to many different types of foods including fruits and vegetables, seafood, dairy, chicken, beef, pork, and processed foods. Some types of animals or pets can also carry these germs and make people sick.

CDC uses three types of information to solve outbreaks caused by contaminated food:

  • epidemiologic
  • traceback
  • food and environmental testing

Each piece of information provides a clue about what may be causing an outbreak.

Finding the source of an outbreak is important, because the food could still be in stores, restaurants, or kitchens and could make more people sick.

How You Can Help

You play a key role in helping the network of health officials who investigate foodborne disease outbreaks.

Three ways you can help if you have food poisoning:

1. Report Your Illness to Your Health Department

If you think you have food poisoning, report it to your local or state health department. Visit your state health department website for more information.

Promptly reporting your illness helps your local or state health department identify possible foodborne disease outbreaks. Health departments track reports of illnesses and look for groups of people with similar symptoms and exposures.

2. Talk to Your Health Care Provider

Talk to your health care provider about testing you for foodborne disease.

Health care providers can order stool or blood tests that can tell them if you have a foodborne disease. The tests results are then uploaded to a database at CDC called PulseNet. PulseNet is a network of local and state public health laboratories and federal food regulatory laboratories that performs DNA fingerprinting of foodborne germs. PulseNet looks for groups, or outbreaks, of similar DNA fingerprints for health officials to investigate.

Hands writing

If you get sick, write down what you ate and what you did in the week before.

3. Write Down What You Ate and What You Did

The time between swallowing a germ and feeling sick is typically 2-3 days, and sometimes longer. The food that made you sick is usually not the last food you ate! If you get sick with food poisoning, write down everything that you can remember eating in the week before you started to get sick, including any restaurants or special events you attended. Write down any contact you had with pets or other animals.

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 sick people over the phone to find out what they ate and did in the week before their illness started. If a health official contacts you to ask questions about an outbreak, take the time to participate – you’ll be helping with the investigation.

People at checkout

Keep food receipts from stores, markets, and restaurants.

Three ways you can help when you’re not sick with food poisoning:

1. Keep Food Receipts and Enroll in Shopper Card Programs

Keep your food receipts from the store, market, and restaurants. Routinely keeping these receipts can help you remember what you ate if you get sick.

Many shopper card or loyalty programs allow you to track your purchases and can provide important information on foods, brands and other details that can help disease detectives during outbreak investigations. Investigators only use shopper card information with your permission.

2. Keep Food Labels

If you buy food and freeze it, freeze the original packaging or label with the food. This helps identify what the food is and trace where it came from during an outbreak investigation.

3. Participate in Disease Detective Investigations

Sometimes during outbreak investigations, public health officials conduct a study called a “case-control study.”

Officials interview sick people (cases) and healthy people (controls). Then they compare what the two groups ate and the things they did. If you get asked to participate in one of these studies, please do – you’ll be helping with the investigation. The information you share could provide important clues to help disease detectives solve the outbreak and prevent others from getting sick!