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Resource concerns in foodborne illness outbreaks

By Joe Whitworth+

07-May-2014
Last updated on 07-May-2014 at 11:45 GMT

NEHA: Challenges in preventing foodborne illness outbreaks
NEHA: Challenges in preventing foodborne illness outbreaks

There has been a significant reduction in foodborne illness program capacity, according to the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA).

A report from the agency advocates resources for training and education, increasing collaboration and cooperation across agencies and using technologies and standardized practices to make up for the lack of funding and experienced staff.

NEHA was asked to conduct the assessment by the Council to Improve Foodborne Outbreak Response (CIFOR) to determine the capacity of local and state agencies in foodborne illness outbreak investigation and response.

33% of local agencies report more than 1,000 retail operations and 10% indicate more than 50 manufacturing facilities in their jurisdictions. Nearly half of state agencies (49%) report more than 10,000 retail facilities in their jurisdictions.

Outbreak investigations

Outbreak investigations typically involve epidemiology, laboratory, and environmental health (EH) staff and partners in risk communication, public health, industry, and other disciplines.

The report identified trends such as staff capacity, EH food safety training opportunities, outbreak detection and response capacity, capacity to implement control measures and prevention actives and inter-agency collaborations and cooperation.

Workforce numbers are declining and the loss of experienced EH professionals will be compounded by pending retirement, particularly at the local level, said the report.

More than 50% of local agencies expect 1–10% of their staff to retire within five years…nearly one-third (31%) of state agencies expect 11–25% of their staff to retire in that time period,” it said.

Using technology to maximise existing staff resources, standardising routine inspection procedures and adoption of risk-based inspection systems will help staff resources.

The report is based on 163 responses; 123 (75%) participants identify themselves as working at local agencies and 40 (25%) from state agencies.

Local and state agencies are able to handle facility closures adequately, however, there is a lack of capacity to implement other, more long-term control measures, such as tracebacks, recalls, and embargos.

Capacity demand

39% of smaller local agencies and 24% of larger local agencies report they do not have capacity to undertake outbreak control measures effectively,” said the report.

“For state agencies with jurisdictions greater than 1 million, 59% report capacity to handle environmental assessments/investigations, yet 42% do not have the capacity to sample foods and 60% do not have the capacity to collect and process environmental swabs.”

NEHA reported that local and state agencies do not have the capacity to adequately address some areas relevant to foodborne illness prevention.

“For smaller local agencies, 22% do not have capacity to record and respond to foodborne illness complaints and 41% do not have capacity for pathogen-specific surveillance,” said the report.  

“Less than 40% of local and state agencies report regularly conducting a review of the data in the complaint log or database and foodborne outbreak investigations to identify trends and possible contributing factors.”