Recent developments in genetics are allowing health officials to quickly identify and stop the spread of foodborne pathogens that make people sick. The Federal Drug Administration (“FDA”) is currently building a network of labs equipped to map the DNA sequence of strains of Salmonella, Listeria and other foodborne pathogens found in sick individuals.
The DNA sequences are then uploaded into a national database. This database allows scientists to differentiate between pathogens, and it can also identify mutations within the same strains of pathogens.
The result: Stopping the spread of contaminated food products before they infect too many people.
In addition to the DNA sequencing of foodborne pathogens found in already sick patients, the FDA has begun to map the genomes of pathogens found during regular food plant inspections and adding those to the national database. Benefits of this process include the ability to quickly connect an outbreak with sick patients and the potential to identify and locate the source of an outbreak after a few, rather than several, patients fall ill. This shortens the time of getting the tainted food out of stores.
In previous attempts to stop outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, samples from sick patients were sent to both state and federal laboratories. Scientists ran tests to see if the various infections were caused by the same parasite. When enough matches were identified, the sick people were interviewed in the hopes of determining a common food that caused the outbreak. While this was an effective means of identifying the offending bug, it took precious time and meanwhile the contaminated food remained on store shelves.
The FDA became convinced the new DNA mapping and database system was much better than the old system during a 2014 outbreak of salmonella found in peanut butter manufactured by nSpired Natural Foods in Oregon. The FDA had just activated the network of labs conducting the genome sequencing.
The agency had also begun mapping the pathogens collected from routine inspections of food manufacturing plants. All of the “maps” were uploaded into the database - known as Genome Trakr. When people began reporting sickness, scientists searched TrakR and compared bugs. The DNA of pathogens found in two patients were “almost indistinguishable” from a strain of salmonella located in the TrakR database. The strain “belonged” to the nSpired Foods manufacturing plant and therefore officials were able to quickly remove the product from store shelves. As a result, only six individuals got sick.
Dr. David Lipman, director of the National Center for Biotechnology Information aptly describes the new detection methods by stating that, “You can catch things far earlier. It can be two cases. If you see a match, Bam! You’ve got ‘em.”
Although the FDA hope that factories will voluntarily submit samples of pathogens found during their own self-inspections, companies are hesitant to do so. They are simply afraid of turning over to the government possible incriminating evidence. The government is trying to best approach this issue.
Even without self-reporting ,it appears that the new methods are working, which ultimately means quicker identification of the problem food and less people getting sick.