FDA Network Track Attack Outbreaks Foodborne Disease

Plums. Nectarines. Peaches. Pluots. Just the thought of biting into one of these juicy fruits is enough to make your mouth water. But in the wake of a recent fruit recall by Wawona Packing Company of California due to possible listeria contamination, some consumers are worried about whether the fruits and vegetables they buy are safe to eat.

There have been no reports of people falling ill from Wawona’s fruit shipments, but listeria can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, seniors, and people with weak immune systems. In 2012, two deaths were linked to listeria contamination in cantaloupes that came from Kentucky and Indiana.

Healthline sat down with Dr. Kathleen Gensheimer, chief medical officer and director of the FDA’s Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) network, to find out what the FDA is doing to keep contaminated foods from reaching our tables, and what consumers can do to keep their food safe.

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Getting to the CORE of Food Safety

America is fortunate to have a fairly safe food supply, but Gensheimer acknowledged that there are obviously issues when disease outbreaks occur.

“The microbes and the germs out there continue to outsmart us, and continue to find new ways of getting into food. Humans are engaged in various aspects of farming, processing, manufacturing, and distribution. If an error is made at some point along that whole continuum, from farm to table, it can certainly have repercussions as far as potential foodborne outbreaks,” said Gensheimer.

Gensheimer told Healthline that the CORE network is the first of its kind in the agency's history. The goal is to streamline the response to outbreaks, and to better monitor the cosmetics and human and animal foods the FDA is responsible for overseeing.

“CORE is a new idea on the part of the FDA as to how the agency as a whole should look at foodborne investigations. We have a dedicated team of multidisciplinary scientists who come together to provide a systematic approach to outbreak investigations. We have brought together the best of what the FDA had done in the past to systematize and develop standard operating procedures, so we could develop a way of evaluating outbreaks and be more productive in that whole process,“ said Gensheimer.

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On the Lookout for Red Flags

CORE includes a Signals and Surveillance team that focuses on early detection in order to limit or prevent an outbreak. Team members comb through information that has been reported in various databases by local and state health agencies, and also search the latest news stories. The team members look for “red flags” that could be an early warning of a pending outbreak.

The Signals team searches the FDA database for information on food manufacturers and processors, such as past inspection and sampling results. "Rather than waiting and trying to figure out what’s going on from an epidemiologic perspective, if we can compare some of this laboratory data, we may be two steps ahead as far as starting this whole outbreak investigative process. If we can be faster and quicker, we can prevent ongoing illness, ongoing hospitalization, and perhaps, ongoing deaths," Gensheimer said.

CORE also includes Response teams, whose role is to investigate outbreaks and to try to determine what the cause, or "vehicle," might be. “They do the necessary trace back, which means getting hold of all sorts of documents, such as invoices, to try to determine what that common vehicle might be that was implicated in illness, and to work with our regulators to try to get that product off the market," Gensheimer said.

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The CORE Communication team is responsible for posting information on the FDA’s website when the agency knows there is a product they are concerned about. This way, consumers are warned in advance.

“We’ve seen different recall notices, and they go up on the FDA site," said Gensheimer. "Many times there may be recalls prompted by industry, but there is no human illness associated with it. That would not be an outbreak. It’s industry taking a proactive stance, when they know they've done some testing at the facility or have found something in the environment that suggests there might be a problem, and they decide on their own to do a recall."

Lessons Learned from Past Outbreaks

The CORE Network also has a post-response team that looks at what the FDA has already learned from some of its outbreak investigations. "There may be guidance we can give to industry, and consumer advisories that go out to educate consumers, and even policy changes or legislation enacted," said Gensheimer, adding, "prevention is what it’s all about."

Gensheimer said that the Food Safety and Modernization Act, passed by the Obama administration in January 2011, was instrumental. It directed the FDA to step up it's prevention efforts and to hold food companies accountable for keeping their facilities safe and sanitary.

"The idea is not to continually be reactive to issues that concern food safety, but to be preventive and focus," she said. "We are trying to look at what we've learned to see if there are some preventive measures that can be utilized, in order to ensure we don’t have a next outbreak that can occur from an issue or problem we may have identified."

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How is the FDA working to ensure that fruits and vegetables imported from abroad are safe? Gensheimer said, "We don’t want to point a finger and say there is some country we don’t trust. Part of that has to do with certification of importers. We are working to assure that whatever is imported in this country is produced and grown under the same standards we expect from domestic suppliers."

The FDA recently announced it has formed a partnership with Mexico to promote the safety of fresh and minimally processed foods grown there.

The partnership will focus on preventive practices and verification measures that follow the best international practices for produce safety. Mexico is the leading exporter of FDA-regulated foods to the United States. The country exports large amounts of fresh vegetables and fruit, excluding bananas.

How You Can Stay Safe

Gensheimer offers these food safety tips to consumers who want to keep their families safe:

  • Refrigerate leftovers properly.
  • If something is meant to be cold, keep it cold. If you buy food on a hot summer day, don’t leave perishables in the car while running errands.
  • To prevent cross contamination of foods, don’t put meat on the top shelf of the refrigerator because juices may drip onto foods on the shelf below.
  • Keep kitchen counters, cutting boards, and utensils clean.
  • If you suspect fruit has spoiled, don't purchase it; notify the store manager.
  • If a product has been recalled, return it to the store. Ask the store or produce manager where the supply that is still being sold comes from to make sure it is not part of the recall.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before cutting or slicing them; use a vegetable brush to clean fruits that have textured rinds.

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