Robert Tauxe: Progress in the Fight for Food Safety

In the midst of a massive salmonella outbreak, U.S. News speaks with a CDC food safety expert

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The salmonella outbreak in peanut butter that has killed nine people and sickened more than 600 has earned the dubious distinction of being the biggest foodborne outbreak in American history, and it's still ongoing. U.S. News talked with Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Bacterial, and Mycotic Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about why this outbreak is raising such loud alarms. Edited excerpts:

As one of the nation's top epidemiologists, you've investigated many outbreaks. Why is this one different?
One of the really striking things is that it is driven by an ingredient, one that got into an extraordinary number of products. That ingredient happened to have a name and flavor that people are familiar with. But were it a less obvious ingredient, it would have been quite hard to pick up at all. Ingredient-driven outbreaks are an idea for the 21st century.

We're seeing more nationwide outbreaks now, including recent problems with spinach, salsa, even dry breakfast cereal. What's causing this?
One reason is that we have better tools to detect outbreaks. But that's not the only element. Our food supply really is centralized. Production from one small plant in Georgia can go into foods produced all over the county. A third issue, though it doesn't appear to be relevant in this outbreak, is that we're getting our ingredients and sources not just from this country. That globalization of our food supply means we are more and more dependent on what's done in other countries.

It seems as if it took the CDC a long time to finger the culprit in this outbreak, which started back in the fall. The CDC didn't start gathering data until January 3.
You're right. What we react to in public health is the fact that people are sick. That's already a little late. The real long-term goal is to keep outbreaks like this from happening in the first place. There is a whole scientific approach to preventing foodborne disease, developed by NASA as a way to ensure that there would be no foodborne outbreaks in space. It's called HACCP. [That stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point. The system identifies points in manufacturing or food-handling processes where interventions would be most likely to reduce contamination and sets monitoring standards and corrective actions.]

HACCP was embraced by the meat industry in the wake of a very large outbreak of E. coli infections in ground beef in 1993. The end result is that the contamination of ground beef has really dropped. What we've learned is that a much broader sector of the food supply is of concern than just poultry and raw shellfish and milk and eggs. Now there are real concerns about how to make produce safe, how to make processed foods more safe.

Can we do that, given our vast food production system?
We need to make the food system safer. This means embracing food safety as an integral part of food production. In the past, the processed meat industry was so aware of its role in food safety that manufacturers asked the Department of Commerce for an antitrust exemption so they could share their experiences. That would help in some of the other industries facing recurring problems.

The other thing is that it takes regulatory attention. It's pretty hard to introduce a whole new approach like HACCP, or enforce an approach like good agricultural practices on farms, if there aren't enough inspectors.