Key Players in Foodborne Outbreak Response

Local, State, and Federal Agencies

Public health agencies that identify and investigate foodborne illnesses operate on several levels. Which agency or agencies participate in an investigation depends on the size and scope of the outbreak. Sometimes one agency starts an investigation and then calls on other agencies as more illnesses are reported across county or state lines.

  • Local agencies—Most foodborne outbreaks are local events. Public health officials in just one city or county health department investigate these outbreaks.
  • State agencies—Typically, the state health department investigates outbreaks that spread across several cities or counties. This department often works with the state department of agriculture and with federal food safety agencies (see following).
  • Federal agencies—For outbreaks that involve large numbers of people or severe or unusual illness, a state may ask for help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). CDC usually leads investigations of widespread outbreaks—those that affect many states at once. States communicate regularly with one another and with CDC about outbreaks and ongoing investigations.CDC routinely collaborates with federal food safety agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, throughout all phases of an outbreak investigation. FDA and FSIS, by law, oversee U.S. food safety and regulate the food industry with inspection and enforcement. In the case of an outbreak of foodborne illness, they work to find out why it occurred, take steps to control it, and look for ways to prevent future outbreaks. They may trace foods to their origins, test foods, assess food safety measures in restaurants and food processing facilities, lead farm investigations, and announce food recalls.

Outbreak Investigation Teams

Outbreak investigative teams are usually made up of a variety of professionals, including:

  • Epidemiologists—disease detectives
  • Microbiologists—laboratory scientists who study germs
  • Environmental health specialists (sometimes called sanitarians)—inspectors who help restaurants serve safe food
  • Regulatory compliance officers and inspectors—officials who make sure food safety laws are followed
  • Health communication specialists

A team may add other professionals as the investigation proceeds.

Food Industry’s Role

The food industry itself plays an important role in preventing and responding to outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Safety Standards and Inspections

Larger companies that produce, process, and package foods often have food safety managers on staff to identify and prevent problems. Some companies require their suppliers to meet specific food safety standards. They may also inspect their suppliers or hire outside auditors to inspect them.

Outbreak Control Measures

Based on findings of an outbreak investigation, the food company involved often takes steps to help stop the outbreak and avoid a similar one in the future. Such measures include stopping processing, cleaning and disinfecting facilities and equipment, training or retraining employees, recalling food, and changing industry-wide practices.