If you’ve ever suspected that the reason you had to call in sick might be blamed on the last restaurant where you ate, you’re not alone.
This past weekend in Atlanta, workers in the food industry along with health experts and officials gathered for a national conference to help learn about preventing such foodborne illnesses and outbreaks.
The Association of Food and Drug Officials held its fourth training workshop on new testing methods to solve retail food-related outbreaks. The Saturday event at the Grand Hyatt Atlanta in Buckhead was part of AFDO’s annual educational conference.
In foodborne illness outbreaks, it can take days to weeks before victims report symptoms. By the time an investigation starts, the contaminated food is most likely long gone and cannot be sampled, making it difficult to definitively determine where an outbreak started.
However, certain pathogens, including salmonella or norovirus, can persist in the environment. These contaminants can linger in overlooked areas such as inside equipment or under drawers, and food inspectors who know where to look can collect and test them.
The investigation itself begins by collecting samples from victims of the outbreak. Food inspectors sample locations where they suspect the bacteria originated, then use genomic testing to compare the samples they collected on location to samples provided by victims. If the genetic fingerprint of the pathogen matches, they’ve likely found the origin of the outbreak.
“These guys are like the NCIS of restaurant outbreaks,” said Brooke Benschoter, AFDO director of communications.
The process indeed bears resemblance to a crime scene investigation, with inspectors’ “environmental sampling” including crawling under counters or taking apart machinery to swab surfaces that could be harboring the outbreak-causing bacteria.
Conference attendees had the opportunity to practice the techniques they learned in several setups: a deli meat grinder and counter, a booth at a restaurant, and even a food trailer, which was provided by the Georgia Department of Agriculture. Teams of inspectors discussed the most likely locations for bacteria to hide while gloving up and swabbed the suspects with sponges. The samples were carefully sealed into plastic bags and labeled to be sent off to a lab.
“We’ve been using (these techniques) at manufacturing and food processing levels for years, but it’s relatively new to the retail world,” said Steven Mandernach, executive director of the AFDO. He added that better procedures and increased access to training opportunities like the Atlanta workshop makes such investigations more accessible to smaller food retailers like restaurants and grocery stores.
So what can a wary customer to do to avoid getting sick in the first place?
“One thing a customer can tell when you walk in through the door is you can tell general hygiene of the staff. You can observe that yourself, what the culture is like,” said Douglas Irving, EHS-Net food coordinator at the Tennessee Department of Health. However, he noted that most risk factors are not so obvious.
“What we’re concerned about are risk-behavior practices, thing we know are commonly associated with food-borne outbreaks — proper hygienic practices,” he said.
Irving added that health reports are available online for customers who would like to see them, but they’re often difficult to understand for those who are outside the industry. This makes the increased accessibility of these techniques good news for consumers — they can leave the inspections to the professionals.
One such professional is Sherri Sigwarth, a food safety specialist at the Iowa Department of Instructions and Appeals. She said that while the techniques taught in the training are reactive, most of the work she and other specialists do is proactive: preventing contamination from happening at all. It seems to be working — after nearly six years in her current position, she has only seen three outbreaks.
“Our goal is public safety. We’re looking out for consumers; we’re looking out for the public. That’s our job,” she said.
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