To help combat outbreaks, FDA wants food companies to send in samples of pathogens detected in plants.

  • For the past few years, FDA has been investigating and deploying the use of whole genome sequencing to track outbreaks of foodborne illness.  The Agency is working to build a network of state and federal labs with the ability to map exact DNA sequences for strains of Listeria, Salmonella, and other foodborne pathogens detected in sick individuals.  These sequences are uploaded to a public database hosted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  In parallel, FDA has started to sequence pathogens that inspectors find during routine food facility inspections and is adding those data to the database.  The Agency hopes that developing these parallel databases will help expedite the matching of patients within an outbreak and will facilitate early detection of an outbreak’s source, thus reducing the amount of time it takes to respond to the problem.
  • According to a Reuters report, FDA now wants food manufacturers to send in samples of pathogens found during their own plant inspections.  By expanding the database of possible “matches,” FDA hopes to speed the process of connecting pathogens found in ill patients to those swabbed from specific facilities.  FDA scientists cite success in tracking a 2014 Salmonella outbreak where the DNA sequences of the pathogens taken from two sick patients were “almost indistinguishable” from Salmonella that FDA had found at a specific food facility during an inspection.
  • Naturally, even where companies may agree with FDA’s approach in principle, the food industry may be hesitant to turn over concrete evidence of microbial contamination in specific facilities.  To alleviate concerns about “self-incrimination,” FDA reportedly is working with its partners to develop means of allowing companies to provide blind samples through third parties, thus enabling growth of the database while protecting the identity of individual contributing companies unless and until specific identification becomes necessary.