Food securityNew food-safety tests may not be very good at detecting food poisoning outbreak

Published 18 December 2012

CDC reports that one in six Americans get sick from food- borne illnesses every year, and 3,000 people a year die from food poisoning; new detection method for food-borne illnesses will be faster to detect an illness, but these new tests cannot detect specific differences between different subtypes of bacteria, as current tests can; the ability to detect these differences is what states and the federal government use to match a sick person to a contaminated food source

When it comes to food poisoning, detection is paramount to saving lives and preventing an outbreak from going nation-wide.  New tests will make it faster to tell whether E. coli, salmonella, or other food-borne bacteria caused a patient’s illness, and these new tests could reach laboratories as early as next year.

USA Todayreports, however, that these tests are not perfect.

While they will be faster to detect an illness, the new tests cannot detect specific differences between different subtypes of bacteria, as current tests can. The ability to detect these differences is what states and the federal government use to match a sick person to a contaminated food source.

It’s like a forensics lab. If somebody says a shot was fired, without the bullet you don’t know where it came from,” E. coli expert Dr. Phillip Tarr of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis toldUSA Today.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), losing the ability to differentiate a germ’s fingerprint could hinder efforts to keep food safe. The CDC reports that one in six Americans get sick from food-borne illnesses every year, and 3,000 people a year die from food poisoning.

These improved tests for diagnosing patients could have the unintended consequence of reducing our ability to detect and investigate outbreaks, ultimately causing more people to become sick,” Dr. John Besser of the CDC told USA Today.

Detection works today when someone with serious diarrhea goes to their doctor, who takes a stool sample to a private laboratory that cultures the sample and grows large batches of any bacteria in order to identify it. If germs such as E. coli O157 or salmonella are found, they may be sent on to a public health laboratory for more sophisticated analysis to uncover their unique patterns.

Those patterns are then posted to PulseNet, a national database for the CDC and health officials to search for food poisoning similarities.

Since it was launched in the mid-1990s, PulseNet has greatly improved the ability to detect and solve food poisoning issues. Outbreaks detected in ground beef, eggs, spinach, and onions can be directly attributed to PulseNet.  Earlier this year the database matched forty-two different salmonella illnesses in twenty different states that were eventually traced to a variety of Trader Joe’s peanut butter.

Today’s testing methods take as long as two to four days as tests have to be run multiple times for certain E.Coli and salmonella types. Next generation testing will take just hours after reaching the lab and cultures will not have to be grown.

The CDC is asking that lab technicians and the medical community as a whole to continue to use the older methods in combination with next generation detection methods in order to cover all bases.

Next generation tests are being used in Wisconsin today. Private laboratories often take the leftover samples they have to the state lab, which grows the bacteria themselves.  The CDC is researching way to use the next generation technology while being able to detect specific patters and some are confident they can find a solution.

As molecular techniques evolve, you may be able to get the information you want from non-culture techniques,” Lieberman told USA Today.

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