Three years after a Salmonella outbreak, first linked to United States Tomatoes and then Mexican Peppers, that sickened about 1,500 people and claimed two lives, U.S. epidemiologists have learned that speed is of the essence in identifying sources of food contamination and preventing further infection. However, in an editorial accompanying the paper in the February 23rd online issue of the New England Journal of Medicine points out, increased speed requires resources that cost money. Identifying sick people earlier would have given health officials a huge head start on getting to the source of the problem, said study lead author Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Behravesh.png“One of the challenges is the lag time between when someone becomes ill and when that person is interviewed to ask about foods they ate in the week before the illness,” she said. “About half of the time, it can take up to 21 days as a median to interview ill people, and this lag can really make it hard not only to remember what food they ate but also for tracking people down.” In addition, she said, “investigating local clusters of illnesses, groups of people that ate at one restaurant in one state, can be aided by looking at menus or recipes to help us efficiently identify foods and even specific ingredients.” Behravesh said a collaboration of agencies and laboratories have established the “OutbreakNet Sentinel Sites, or OSS, are one of the key components that could have saved time in this (2008) outbreak.”

Correctly figuring out outbreaks earlier can prevent illnesses and save lives by getting the offending food product off the shelves faster and alerting consumers to safe food handling practices. As important is a faster response gives epidemiologists greater information to link a specific food and a specific manufacturer to an outbreak and recall. Cutting time between first illnesses can save millions in medical expenses, and being more accurate on the illness vector saves an industry from an undeserved black eye.

Congress should devote the resources necessary to prevent illnesses and prevent unnecessary business loss.