PulseNet Saves Lives and Money: A 20-year Success Story

PulseNet, a national network of public health laboratories, prevents an estimated 270,000 cases of food poisoning and saves half a billion dollars every year.

By preventing foodborne illness, PulseNet not only saves lives but also saves an estimated $500 million a year in medical costs and lost productivity. In comparison, the network costs public health agencies about $7 million a year to run.

PulseNet connects cases of foodborne illness by comparing DNA fingerprints of the foodborne bacteria and matching illnesses across the country that may be from the same source. Information about the bacteria making people sick is entered by labs across the country into a network database, which can be accessed by local and state health officials. By matching cases of illness and finding outbreaks, public health investigators can work quickly to find the source of the illness, recall contaminated food, and prevent more illnesses.

Since it started in 1996, PulseNet has revolutionized how foodborne disease outbreaks are detected and investigated. Before PulseNet, foodborne disease outbreaks often went undetected or were discovered only after they grew very large. Using PulseNet methods, scientists can now find outbreaks even if only a few people are sick and they live in different parts of the country.

Many products and food handling practices are safer today because of investigations that PulseNet initiated, including production changes in the food industry and new or improved guidance, policy and regulations.

20 years of PulseNet USA

20 years of PulseNet USA

Using PFGE patterns scientists can compare bacterial DNA fingerprints using 15-30 bands while WGS reveals all the genetic material, or the genome, of a bacteria in one efficient process. That is like comparing all the words in a book (WGS) instead of just the number of chapters (PFGE).

Using PFGE patterns scientists can compare bacterial DNA fingerprints using 15-30 bands while WGS reveals all the genetic material, or the genome, of a bacteria in one efficient process. That is like comparing all the words in a book (WGS) instead of just the number of chapters (PFGE).

CDC scientist looks at PFGE patterns on a computer screen

CDC scientist looks at PFGE patterns on a computer screen

Microbiologist using Next Generation Sequencing technology to identify the bacterial DNA fingerprint.

Microbiologist using Next Generation Sequencing technology to identify the bacterial DNA fingerprint.

Microbiologist using Next Generation Sequencing technology to identify the bacterial DNA fingerprint.

Microbiologist using Next Generation Sequencing technology to identify the bacterial DNA fingerprint.

Microbiologist loading bacterial DNA into Next Generation Sequencing technology.

Microbiologist loading bacterial DNA into Next Generation Sequencing technology.

The microbiologist is removing the DNA from the bacteria (DNA extraction). This DNA will then be used for the whole genome sequencing process.

The microbiologist is removing the DNA from the bacteria (DNA extraction). This DNA will then be used for the whole genome sequencing process.

A pure culture of the bacteria that made someone sick.

A pure culture of the bacteria that made someone sick.

Microbiologist adding molecular scissors (restriction enzymes) that will cut the DNA inside the gelatin plug. This will produce a PFGE pattern or DNA fingerprint.

Microbiologist adding molecular scissors (restriction enzymes) that will cut the DNA inside the gelatin plug. This will produce a PFGE pattern or DNA fingerprint.

Microbiologist preparing gelatin plug that contains the bacterial DNA that made someone sick.

Microbiologist preparing gelatin plug that contains the bacterial DNA that made someone sick.

PulseNet saves at least half a billion dollars in medical costs and lost productivity for a cost to savings ratio of $1 spent = $70 saved.

PulseNet saves at least half a billion dollars in medical costs and lost productivity for a cost to savings ratio of $1 spent = $70 saved.

PulseNet prevents over 270,000 illnesses from Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria every year.

PulseNet prevents over 270,000 illnesses from Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria every year.

Contact Information

CDC Media Relations
(404) 639-3286
media@cdc.gov

Spokespersons

Rob Tauxe, MD, MPH

Biography

Rob Tauxe, MD, MPH

“We’re in the midst of an exciting time of technological change that will help stop more foodborne disease outbreaks and help keep people healthy. We’re working on methods that will make PulseNet faster, perhaps allowing patients to learn they’re part of an outbreak within a few days of getting sick.”

Rob Tauxe, MD, MPH – Director, Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases

Peter Gerner-Smidt, MD, DMSc

BiographyExternal

“PulseNet has been a huge success made possible by strong collaboration with state public health labs, FDA, USDA, and the Association of Public Health Laboratories. Public health officials and health care providers are on the front lines, providing valuable information that makes PulseNet work.”

Peter Gerner-Smidt, MD, DMSc – Chief, Enteric Diseases Laboratory Branch

John Besser, PhD

Biography

“PulseNet is a key part of our food safety system, helping identify problems that can be fixed to improve the quality and safety of the food we eat. We’ve known PulseNet has been successful for many years, but now we have hard numbers to prove it.”

John Besser, PhD – Deputy Chief, Enteric Diseases Laboratory Branch

Page last reviewed: March 15, 2016