ATLANTA – As part of the pre-show educational sessions at the International Production and Processing Expo, regulators, processors and consultants made presentations during a day-long workshop titled “Recalls and Public Health Investigations.”

One of the presenters, Dr. David Goldman, assistant administrator for the office of public health science at the Food Safety and Inspection Service, walked attendees through the process of a typical FSIS investigation, as part of determining whether or not a meat or poultry company needs to issue a product recall after an illness outbreak. Goldman discussed the investigation process and possible outcomes and how these probes can be aided by processor cooperation and enhanced by technology and cooperation with state public health agencies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To provide context, he pointed out that between 2007 and 2010, 58 outbreaks were reported to FSIS. Of those, between 10 and 30 illness clusters were investigated, with each cluster involving approximately 25 patients. Among the cases, “about 30 percent of the investigations we undertake result in a product recall,” Goldman said.

Not only is traceback an important part of any investigation, by establishing where the sickened person purchased the food, but tracing forward to discover the distribution of the products beyond the point of sale to the consumer who got sick provides a valuable trail to identify the scope of an outbreak. Trace-forward, Goldman said, “can make or break a case very quickly,” citing the investigation of a quick-service chain several years ago that was linked to a cluster of illnesses among consumers who ate tacos from the chain. “This case was solved when we [FSIS] went to the company and looked at their purchase records,” and investigators determined there were separate vendors for the ground beef supplied to the company and the lettuce it used in the tacos. Officials discovered the illness was linked to the lettuce in this case, thanks to the trace-forward process. “If you, the company, are able to provide that information early in the investigation, that really can be quite helpful,” said Goldman.

Goldman referred to Directive 8080.3 as the guideline FSIS employees follow to conduct an investigation. He urged attendees to read the directive, which was published about four years ago and is available on the US Dept. of Agriculture’s website.

Investigating foodborne illness outbreaks has been made easier by technology that Goldman says has revolutionized the investigation process. Pulsed field gel electrophoresis, for example. allows officials to discover DNA-based similarities when linking illnesses. These characteristics can be interfaced with CDC’s PulseNet technology to expedite investigations. Shopper loyalty cards issued by retailers have also proven to be a valuable tool to tracking and notifying consumers found to be at risk during investigations and recalls.

Depending on details and the scope of the outbreak, investigation outcomes can vary. “Outcomes are not limited to recalls,” he said, as the agency also has the option to issue (albeit rarely) public health alerts or conduct a Food Safety Assessment of a processor. Other outcomes include Incident Investigation Team Reviews (IITRs), which involves a team of up to six health officials coming to a plant to determine the cause of the product adulteration. IITRs can result in inspection suspension or requiring a plant to increase its product sampling.