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Activist-driven Legislation and New Technology Have Improved US Food Safety

Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that there are 600 million foodborne illnesses each year, with 40% of them occurring in children younger than 5 years. Annually, an estimated 420,000 people die of these foodborne illnesses.
“Foodborne illness is important. Everyone must eat. An increasing proportion of the population is vulnerable, such as the elderly and immunocompromised. There is no vaccine; [however,] illnesses are preventable, often with simple measures,” Dr. Griffin stressed in her session.
In the 1990s, legislation was enacted that mandated the recall of contaminated beef and safer hamburger preparation by food outlets. In 1996, the CDC launched two programs—PulseNet and FoodNet—to detect outbreaks using techniques like PFGE and to monitor the effectiveness of meat safety programs. These programs have helped drive the decline in foodborne infection and, combined with epidemiologic investigations, have reduced the response time to outbreaks. The quicker response time has decreased the human toll caused by these outbreaks.
Subsequent illness outbreaks due to bacterial contamination of spinach and processed food, such as peanut butter, led to the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act on January 4, 2011—which is about to come into effect. The act, which shifts the focus of food safety from outbreak response to outbreak prevention, is the most sweeping reform of US food safety laws in over 70 years, is about to come into effect.
Challenges that remain include the use of antibiotics as growth supplements in large-scale commercial cattle-, swine-, and chicken-raising facilities. As of this December, antibiotics can no longer be sold for growth promotion. In addition, at present, there is no routine ongoing surveillance on farms; this is a major public health gap.
“Investigation of outbreaks usually stops outside the farm gate, so we don’t learn what to do differently,” said Dr. Griffin. The CDC has embraced the use of whole genome sequencing, which provides information on the entire genome of pathogens. “Whole genome sequencing refines investigations by determining which isolates are highly related. This can tie isolates from earlier years to an ongoing source,” said Dr. Griffen explained.
The driving vision of the CDC, according to Dr. Griffin, is that everyone has a right to safe food.

Progress Toward Building a Better U.S. System for Tracking, Investigating, and Decreasing Foodborne Illnesses; Patricia Griffin, MD, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia

Brian Hoyle, PhD, is a medical and science writer and editor from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He has been a full-time freelance writer/editor for over 15 years. Prior to that, he was a research microbiologist and lab manager of a provincial government water-testing lab. He can be reached at
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