Point of View

Speeding up our food safety system

June 12, 2011 

— The current E. coli outbreak in Europe is a vivid reminder that food safety is a serious business. Almost 3,000 people have become sickened with E. coli, and more than 700 of them suffered complications. In addition to 29 fatal cases in Germany, a death was reported in Sweden.

Both the United States and Europe have made significant advances in their food safety systems in the past several years, and North Carolina is a model for best practices here in the U.S. Nonetheless, steps can and should be taken to improve our food safety system so we can detect food-borne illnesses, locate the source of the problem and get tainted food off the shelves more quickly.

No food-borne disease outbreaks are exactly alike, which may account for the difficulty faced by German authorities in pinpointing the source of the E. coli. By the time individuals display symptoms, there has already been a time lag of one or more weeks from first contact with the tainted product. There is additional delay as confirmatory evidence is gathered from other patients. Once the responsible food product has been identified, all affected products must be traced back through the food chain and recalled.

The whole process - from detection of the outbreak to getting all tainted products off the shelves - can take weeks, even months.

The costs of these delays can be measured in lives and dollars. As of this writing, new infections in Europe are still occurring (though the rate has slowed). The effect on the European economy is estimated at $280 million per week, with the possible loss of 70,000 agricultural jobs.

Similar episodes have happened here. The peanut butter contamination incident in 2009 sickened more than 700 people in 44 states and caused nine deaths. More than 3,900 products were recalled, and the U.S. peanut industry suffered millions of dollars in lost sales. More than 10 months elapsed from the time of suspected first contamination to the last known recall of products containing the tainted peanut butter.

Reducing delays in detecting and responding to emerging food-borne events can save lives and protect the economy. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 6 Americans will get sick from food every year -- about 48 million consumers. Of those, 3,000 will die and about 128,000 will be hospitalized. The total annual cost of food contamination in the U.S. was recently estimated to be $152 billion, including health and human welfare costs as well as economic damages to companies and entire industries.

North Carolina is held as a model for other states, but gaps in our food safety net still exist.

Changes in policy and the development of new information-sharing technologies can close these gaps. Policies that speed up the adoption of patient electronic health records would help public health officials link cases of suspected food-borne disease more quickly. North Carolina has a new electronic laboratory reporting system that allows immediate access to state laboratory results - with private laboratory results soon to follow. And policies that provide incentives to private companies and food facilities to share information about their customers and suppliers in the event of an outbreak of food borne disease will speed up the recall process.

Sharing this information across all the stakeholders of our food-safety system is critically important. That system is dynamic and complex, with an array of governmental agencies charged with regulating and supervising the safety of millions of food products produced by thousands of companies.

UNC-Chapel Hill and the Institute of Homeland Security Solutions are creating an information system that reduces delays by enabling the agencies involved in food safety across North Carolina to share critical information in real time. Visualization and analytical tools will enable public health officials to "connect the dots" more quickly - linking laboratory results about ill patients from public health, recall information from departments of agriculture and consumer complaint data. Data from social media such as Twitter can provide immediate signals of emerging events. And private-sector information about possible safety problems will help target inspections to get contaminated products off the shelves more quickly.

Our policymakers should focus on making modest investments and policy changes now, so when the next food safety emergency hits we can minimize the damage.

Noel Greis is director of the Center for Logistics and Digital Strategy at UNC-Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School. Monica Nogueira is director of the Center's Intelligent Systems Laboratory.

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