Minnesota: Land of 10,000 outbreaks?



The presence of Salmonella in certain brands of chicken and tuna has recently lead to three different food recalls and has resulted in more than four million pounds of food being discarded. While the recalls involve three different food companies, and seemingly began completely separate of one another, they all have one thing in common: Minnesota.

In each of these food recalls and the cases of Salmonella that were traced back to them, all were first identified in Minnesota. This, according to a recent article, is because Minnesota finds foodborne illness quicker than other states thanks to its superior technology and the in-depth interviews food safety officials conduct from the state’s health department.

“It can often be hard to determine if outbreaks are connected or just happening simultaneously,” Matthew Wise, of the Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said in the article. “For instance, the type of Salmonella from the chicken poisonings was Salmonella Enteritidis, which is very common. The DNA fingerprint is very common — and that makes it hard to know whether outbreaks are connected or not.”

However, Minnesota takes bacterial analysis of foodborne pathogens a step further by extra DNA imprinting to determine which strains may be coming from a common source, Wise shared. “They’re one of the labs doing whole DNA genome sequencing, which is basically extra characterization of the DNA,” he said.

On top of the state’s advanced lab work, Wise said in the article, they’re also incredibly thorough and quick on the interview front — which is a long and careful process of locating a poisoning’s source.

For example, a person goes to the doctor or hospital with a gastrointestinal issue, and they often leave a stool sample. That stool sample is then analyzed for foodborne illnesses like Salmonella, among other things. If a doctor is seeing an unusual prevalence or infection, or perhaps multiple people that attended the same event come down with an illness, the lab at the state health department is notified. The information is then sent to the CDC to identify illness clusters, and the agency launches an investigation if a potential outbreak is suspected.

At this point, patient questioning begins in hopes to determine a potential source for the outbreak.

“The state will interview ill people to identify where the illness arose,” Wise said in the article, explaining that Minnesota has this process pretty down pat, too. “Between the interviewing and the lab work in Minnesota, because of the sophisticated technology, they are that ‘canary in the coal mine,’ so to speak, often locating outbreaks first,” he added.

The article states that Minnesota is one of the strongest state health departments in the country, although they are not the only key player to prevent foodborne illness across the nation. The state is part of the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet), which has been tracking infections transmitted through food sources since 1996. Other states involved in FoodNet include Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee, and selected counties in California, Colorado, and New York.

However, state by state, Wise said, the country is growing better at identifying and containing foodborne illnesses more quickly, which is important for several reasons.

“First, by locating outbreaks early, we’re able to identify gaps in the food-safety system that we didn’t previously know were there,” he said in the article. “We can see where the outbreak happened, and what went wrong. This is important because obviously we want to catch the outbreak early, because there’s the chance that a lot of people will get ill.”

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