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Inconsistent State Tracking Contributed to Nationwide Salmonella Outbreaks

Feb 24, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP
Inconsistent State Tracking

Salmonella Outbreak Was Not Handled Quickly

Health officials admit that the ongoing and massive peanut salmonella outbreak was not handled as quickly as it could have been, in part because of a variety of differing and inconsistent state laws, reports MSNBC.

Adding to the issue, not all states require submission of salmonella specimens that contain the DNA markers necessary to confirm an outbreak, said MSNBC, which broke the story on how lags in food borne infection outbreaks can cost much more than money in the way of health and life.

One-third of all states are not required to submit such samples, but can do so on a voluntary basis.  Also, according to MSNBC, a technology called pulsed-field gel electrophoresis—PFGE—is used by some, but not all states, to test salmonella samples collected; some states only test some collected samples, some test all, and so on.  Food safety advocates have long lobbied for mandatory PFGE testing, which many believe could have expedited the detection and conclusion to the numerous national outbreaks that have made headlines in recent months, said MSNBC, yet mandatory, consistent testing protocols continue to elude the food industry.

Inconsistent Nationwide Testing Protocols

Without such consistent, mandatory, nationwide testing protocols, outbreak warnings can slip through the cracks, become delayed, and result in widespread illness and death.  For instance, in the current salmonella outbreak, illnesses began occurring as far back as September 1, 2008; however, the outbreak was not detected for at least two months and was not recognized by public health until early this year, said MSNBC.  In a case where nine have died and over 600 have been sickened, the figures of who could have been saved or spared are staggering.

Now, the outbreak is topping over 650 illnesses in 44 states and Canada; nine deaths; over 2,200 peanut product recalls, involving over 200 companies; and at least one company claiming it had no choice but to declare bankruptcy as a result of the Peanut Company of America (PCA) scandal.  Every product ever produced by PCA has been recalled; all of PCA’s plants have been closed; and the company is in the midst of bankruptcy, criminal investigations, and dozens of lawsuits.

“It’s that whole idea of finding needles in haystacks,” Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director for foodborne illnesses at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told MSNBC. “We would like virtually all of the salmonella to be tested if we can,” Dr. Tauxe added, noting that had information been available earlier, the “unusual” strain of salmonella—Salmonella Typhimurium—might have been detected sooner in the ongoing outbreak, which has been linked solely to PCA.  “Having less than 100 percent compliance lowers the sensitivity of outbreak detection,” said John Besser, clinical lab manager for the Minnesota Department of Health. “The current system was designed to test local events such as the church potluck. The way you make the system better is by getting salmonella isolates tested,” quoted MSNBC.

Unified detection protocols would have also been helpful last summer when the massive Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak—first blamed on tomatoes and later on Mexican peppers—caused 1,400 illnesses, about 300 hospitalizations, and was linked to two fatalities.  Testing was partly to blame in that case in which Texas—a state with over 550 confirmed cases—did not require mandatory isolate testing, said Dr. Tim F. Jones, Tennessee’s state epidemiologist and an international food illness expert, saying that “It led to a delay,” quoted MSNBC.

Salmonella causes 40,000 confirmed cases each year, but, says the CDC, is probably responsible for close to 40 times that—a stunning 1,600,000—noting that 2,500 subtypes of salmonella exist, said MSNBC.  PFGE costs about $100 per test, reported MSNBC.  Given the cost of some of the recent outbreaks—last year’s salmonella outbreak had early estimates at $100 million; however, that number is likely a "gross underestimate," said Julia Stewart, spokeswoman for the Produce Marketing Association—perhaps testing is a fiscally responsible course of action.

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