You might find this not surprising, but I read the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) weekly. In reading this week’s article “Food Safety Epidemiology Capacity in State Health Departments — United States, 2010,” I was struck by the thought that if I had to do it all over again, I would have taken a path towards epidemiology instead of law. Today, that seems like a good choice – assuming the public will pay for it.

The report found that in 2010, states reported a need for 304 more employees working in food safety to reach full program capacity – i.e. do the job effectively. The greatest demand for master’s degree–level epidemiologists (50% of demand). So perhaps Epidemiologist has become this decade’s plastics.

The report also found (not surprisingly) that barriers to investigating foodborne outbreaks reported most often by states included delayed notification of the outbreak (reported by 41 states), lack of a sufficient number of foodborne safety staff members (29 states), lower prioritization of investigations (27 states), lack of ability to pay overtime (20 states), lack of adequate epidemiology expertise (12 states), difficulties working with in-state agencies (eight), constraints related to administrative support (eight), and difficulties working with other state or federal agencies (five).

In addition to the personnel, financial and structural problems discussed the report noted with concern that the Council to Improve Foodborne Outbreak Response (CIFOR) Guidelines for Foodborne Disease Outbreak Response, which was intended to improve outbreak response, has been slow being adopted. Among the states, 47 plan to read the document, 39 plan to distribute it, and 29 plan to review their practices against the recommendations in the Guidelines and the performance indicators therein. Few states reported plans to implement or incorporate the Guidelines into practice in the immediate future (27%).

Graduates – I still have one word for you – Epidemiologist. However, there is much more work to be done to get the funding and environment right to do your job well.