Food safety advances must pace public health advances

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There is legitimate concern throughout the food and beverage industry about what form the new food safety legislation wending its way through Congress will take and how it may affect food processors. What should not be missed to manufacturers as they watch this process is the impact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s PulseNet program will have on food safety efforts.

PulseNet was created in response to the 1993 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that killed four children and sickened hundreds. The program provides federal, state and local public health officials with the ability to identify and track clusters of foodborne illness. As it evolves and grows, PulseNet will give the public health community a powerful tool to detect foodborne illness outbreaks that previously had gone undetected.

PulseNet is based on D.N.A. "fingerprints" generated by pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (P.F.G.E.) of samples taken from people who have fallen ill from foodborne illness and from suspected food products. Once the P.F.G.E. patterns are generated, they are entered into an electronic database of D.N.A. fingerprints and uploaded to a national database that is housed at the C.D.C.’s offices in Atlanta. People who are certified and have access to the database may then perform searches looking for clusters or patterns that may identify an outbreak of foodborne illness.

The program has been slow to evolve as federal officials worked to convince state and local public health groups to invest in the program. But today all 50 states are covered and PulseNet has been expanded to Canada, Mexico, Latin America, Europe, the Asia/Pacific region and Australia.

In addition to adding participants at the local, state and international levels, the C.D.C. would like to create a system that allows for real-time pathogen sub-typing and real-time communication. PulseNet represents a significant achievement for the public health community and it will put significant pressure on food companies. During the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s Executive Conference, held earlier this month, two speakers noted the current impact PulseNet is having and the challenges an improved surveillance system may present to food manufacturers.

To illustrate the effect PulseNet has had, Frank Yiannas, the vice-president of food safety for Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., said that if the Peanut Corporation of America outbreak had occurred just a decade ago, public health authorities may not have been able to connect the dots and identify the source of the contamination.

A second speaker at the meeting noted advances to the PulseNet surveillance system will occur in the near term.

"The hard part for them (C.D.C.) right now is to detect outbreaks from minor ingredients that go into a lot of different foods," said Michael P. Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. "I will predict that those problems will be fixed in a few years and we will find that a whole lot more minor ingredients, like spices, will be potential problems."

To keep pace food companies must continue to study and invest in improved food safety intervention technologies and ensure they have the real-time ability to initiate product recalls. The recent introduction of the Food Marketing Institute’s Rapid Recall Exchange is just one example of how the industry may meet future challenges.

The emergence and improvement of the PulseNet system means the definition of what is deemed "safe" is in the process of being changed. As Mr. Yiannas noted at the G.M.A. conference, it appears food manufacturers and public health authorities are in a race. One only needs to look at the outcomes of some of the food safety incidents that have occurred during the past few years to get a sense of the consequences of falling behind in this race.

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