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FOOD SAFETY: 5 QUESTIONS FOR CDC EXPERT DR. ROBERT TAUXE

Promoting a culture of food safety is important for businesses of all sizes, both from a productivity and economic perspective. According to a 2015 report, foodborne illness is estimated to cost America more than $15.5 billion annually. Robert Tauxe, M.D., M.P.H., deputy director of CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, answers five questions about food safety best practices for employers.

1. How does CDC approach food safety?

Preventing illness and protecting the public’s health is our first priority. We work with regulatory partners and the food industry in every step of the process. Although most of our food is very safe, new problems can emerge that require a variety of approaches and collaboration between CDC, state and local public health partners, federal regulators, industry and consumers.

Working with our local and state public health partners, CDC:

  • Tracks foodborne illnesses, 
  • Estimates the health burden and sources of those illnesses, 
  • Detects and investigates foodborne outbreaks, and 
  • Builds capacity in public health departments. 

2. Have advances in technology helped governmental food safety programs better detect sources of outbreaks?

Finding and investigating outbreaks is crucial to stopping them and understanding how to prevent them from happening again. Starting almost 20 years ago, CDC built a national laboratory network called PulseNet. This network helps detect outbreaks by comparing the molecular “fingerprints” of the bacteria that made people sick and connecting similar cases of foodborne illness together to quickly find outbreaks and link illnesses across states. PulseNet now includes public health laboratories from all 50 states, as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS).

In 2013, CDC started using a new technology called whole genome sequencing. This advanced molecular detection technology provides even more detailed information about the bacteria that make people sick. A collaborative effort between CDC, FDA, USDA-FSIS, NIH and state and local health departments focuses on the germ Listeria, which causes rare but severe infections, like those associated with recent outbreaks linked to ice cream and caramel apples. Whole genome sequencing provided a crucial clue in the caramel apple outbreak, allowing CDC to find and stop the outbreak faster. This technology also strengthened our findings in the ice cream outbreak investigation, including information that the outbreak had started making people sick as early as 2010 and continued into 2015.

CDC uses whole genome sequencing to test the Listeria from sick patients, while local and state health departments interview patients about what foods they ate. FDA and USDA-FSIS test Listeria germs from food sold in grocery stores and the equipment and environment in food production plants. As a result, we are finding and stopping more Listeria outbreaks. This initiative may be expanded to cover other germs that cause foodborne illness like E. coli O157 and Salmonella.

3. What are the best ways for the public and private sector to work together to advance food safety?

Food safety is a team sport. Our food is safe because of continuous efforts by the food industry, regulatory agencies and public health authorities, plus the steps that consumers take when preparing food every day in their kitchens. Some of the greatest successes in food safety have come from collaborations across companies in an industry to share strategies that work. The food industry has extensive expertise about how to produce food that is safe and healthy. Industry leaders also have important insights about identifying problems before something goes wrong. This knowledge can be very helpful in the context of an outbreak and in helping to improve food safety in general. CDC is making public health information more readily available and accessible to help industry, regulators and others make decisions to improve food safety.

4. In your view, how does food safety in the United States compare to other countries? Can we learn from practices in other countries?

America’s food supply is among the safest in the world. However, the food supply changes constantly, and we are importing more food than ever before. Imported food accounts for 17 percent of food eaten by Americans, and we need to work with other countries to be sure that food safety is part of international food production and supply chains. We have borrowed ideas to improve food safety from other countries, and also share our solutions with them. Continuing to collaborate with other countries will allow us to find, investigate and prevent more international food safety problems.

5. What advice would you give to the food industry—and consumers—about food safety?

The food industry is key to keeping our food safe. Its practices and procedures make our food safer day in and day out. New regulations from FDA and USDA are being rolled out this year and next for fresh produce, processed foods and poultry. CDC hopes these regulations will lay the groundwork for the food industry, and that many companies will exceed the food safety standards that these regulations establish. More generally, incorporating food safety into worker health programs in any company can help prevent employees and their family members from getting sick and missing work or school.

What each of us do and say about food safety matters. Everybody is part of the food safety system, and together consumers have a powerful voice. Americans can practice food safety at home and share important food safety messages with others. Everyone can let grocers, restaurant operators and the food industry know that they care about the safety of our food. Consumers can learn more about how to become champions of food safety on CDC's website and at www.foodsafety.gov.