Getting to the CORE of Foodborne Illness

By: Kathleen Gensheimer, M.D., MPH

Peanut butter. Cantaloupe. Dog food. Tuna. Cheese.

Any of these products might show up on your weekly grocery list.

Each was found to be the source of a foodborne illness outbreak over the past two years.

In the first 17 months since it was launched in August 2011, FDA’s Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation Network (CORE) evaluated 211 incidents of illnesses that were possibly related to FDA-regulated products. After careful analysis, 63 of those incidents were determined to indeed be related to FDA-regulated products and an active CORE response began with one goal: Stop the outbreak.

The highlights of CORE’s work are outlined in our new report entitled “FDA’s CORE: A Food Safety Network 2011-2012.”  As CORE’s director, I could say that I’m proud of what my team has accomplished. But that would be an understatement.

Every day, members of the CORE network at FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local agencies, are working to identify, stop and prevent outbreaks. Each outbreak is unique, and so are the results of each investigation. In many cases, though, the network is able to identify, trace and stop an outbreak in its tracks. Contaminated products are pulled out of distribution and removed from grocery store shelves—and hundreds of people may have been spared illness.

CORE introduced a whole new concept into FDA’s response to foodborne illness outbreaks. That is, not just to assemble a team of experts when an outbreak strikes, but to have a full-time, ongoing “core” staff of three teams—Signals and Surveillance, Response, and Post-Response—dedicated respectively to finding the outbreak, stopping the outbreak, and preventing the next outbreak.     

There’s a seamless passing of the baton, and it’s exciting, too. CORE is constantly changing and evolving. Every unique outbreak teaches us new lessons we can apply to the next.

In very short order, CORE proved that FDA could work in close and vital partnership with a huge cast of supporting characters across the country, an extended network of experts from regulatory, public health, agricultural agencies and laboratory staff at the federal, state and local levels. CORE also proved that these partnerships would pay off.

We learn lessons about the science of illness and how it spreads, about the role manufacturers or farmers or packagers or a host of others play. We learn new ways to collect and then crunch the data, and new ways to apply it. We build new relationships and extend our network of experts across the country.

Most importantly, we see first-hand the health hazards that could develop and—if we do our jobs right—we learn how to minimize the chance that they will develop.

So we’re not simply responding to the outbreak. In the intricate chain from farm, to manufacturer, to shipper, to grocer, to your kitchen table, we’re finding ways to help prevent foodborne illness from ever harming you and your family.

Kathleen Gensheimer, M.D., MPH, is Chief Medical Officer and FDA’s Director of Outbreak Investigation and Response

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