Public Communication during Foodborne Outbreaks

Illustration of a news reporter on TV talking about an outbreak.

Warning consumers quickly about a contaminated food can save lives.

Public health and regulatory officials work quickly to find the source of foodborne disease outbreaks so they can take action to prevent more people from getting sick.

During a foodborne outbreak investigation, officials collect three types of data: epidemiologic, traceback, and food and environmental testing. Health officials assess all of these data to try to find the likely source of the outbreak. They take action when there is clear and convincing information linking illness to a contaminated food. One of the most important actions public health officials can take to prevent illness is warning consumers quickly about a contaminated food.

Deciding to Communicate

Multistate foodborne outbreak investigations are complex and involve many partners at local, state, and federal health and regulatory agencies. CDC makes the decision to communicate about a multistate outbreak with input from all of these partners.

CDC follows a consistent process for evaluating the need to warn consumers about ongoing multistate foodborne outbreaks. The process includes considering why communication might or might not be needed. Rather than designing a rigid set of communication rules or policies, CDC and investigation partners developed a flexible and comprehensive guide on when, what, and how to communicate during an outbreak.

CDC is most likely to warn consumers when the investigation identifies a specific food linked to illness, and there is a continuing risk to public health because the food is still in stores or homes. In this scenario, there are specific, clear, and actionable steps for consumers to take to protect themselves from contaminated food. The company also may have recalled the food in this scenario.

Some factors CDC considers when deciding to warn consumers:

  • Illnesses continue to be reported (an outbreak is ongoing)
  • The data have identified a specific brand or type of food linked to illness
  • The number of new illnesses is increasing rapidly
  • Illnesses are unusually severe
  • A specific group of people is at higher risk for illness

Informing the Public

If the decision is made to notify the public of an outbreak, CDC posts a web announcement. This announcement tells people what they can do to protect their health.

Web announcements typically include:

  • How many people are sick in each state
  • What contaminated food is linked to the outbreak
  • Signs and symptoms of the illness
  • Advice to consumers and retailers about foods to avoid eating or selling
  • Other investigation details, including food testing results, if available

CDC posts web updates during outbreak investigations to ensure the website reflects the most accurate and current information. Updates are posted on an as-needed basis, and the timing differs depending on the outbreak.

CDC posts a final web update once an investigation ends. The final web update indicates to the public that the immediate risk of illness is over.

Web announcements and updates are posted on the CDC Foodborne Outbreaks website. This website provides information about foodborne outbreaks where CDC was leading the epidemiologic investigation. State and local health department websites often provide information on other foodborne outbreaks, where CDC was not leading the investigation.

CDC also notifies the public through the following social media channels when a foodborne outbreak is announced or when new information is released:

Outbreak Reports and Publications

Public health officials don’t solve every outbreak. Sometimes the outbreak ends before enough information is gathered to identify the likely source and warn the public. The source also may be identified after the outbreak ends and the risk to the public is over.

Even if an urgent warning is no longer needed, CDC often writes outbreak reports after an investigation ends. These reports provide valuable information for people interested in food safety topics, such as the media, food safety educators, and consumer advocacy groups, as well as for food industries and regulatory officials as they work to make our food safer.

The CDC website also contains information on local, state, and national foodborne outbreaks reported to the National Outbreak Reporting System (NORS) since 1998. Users of NORS Dashboard – an online tool to containing information from NORS – can search outbreak data, see information displayed on interactive maps and graphs, download data, and more.