I know it is summer when a quick review of our foodborne outbreak watch board shows four multistate outbreak investigations: Salmonella Chester, Salmonella Baildon, Salmonella Hartford, and E. coli O157 due to contaminated bison meat products. Outbreak investigations play a key role in preventing foodborne diseases and often help public health officials identify areas for improvement in the food industry. The U.S. food production, processing, and distribution system generally provides safe food and numerous options to feed 300 million Americans every day. Occasionally, foodborne outbreaks occur when people eat food that has been contaminated.
The Salmonella Chester outbreak investigation is a really nice example of how actively engaging the food industry leads to both: 1) a more rapid identification of implicated products and the potential contaminated ingredient or faulty process, and 2) to more rapid voluntary recalls. For the last three years, Dr. Mike Doyle of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety has been hosting a CDC-Food Industry Safe Foods Forum to improve collaborations among food producers and CDC. The small group consists of the industry leaders in food safety and meets three to four times per year to discuss ways to improve outbreak detection and response, data sharing, and communications. CDC has developed strong working ties with the participating companies, including ConAgra Foods.
When a recent case-control study conducted as part of the Salmonella Chester outbreak investigation found that the illness was associated with eating a Marie Callender’s frozen meal, our Foodborne outbreak chief, Ian Williams, was able to quickly call Joan Menke-Schaenzer, ConAgra’s Global Chief Quality Officer, to discuss the findings. ConAgra Foods immediately announced a precautionary recall of Marie Callender’s Cheesy Chicken and & Rice frozen entrées based on CDC data and then shared production information with state and local public health departments, CDC, agriculture, and regulatory agencies to shed more light on the possible causes of the outbreak. This was done even before there was laboratory confirmation of Salmonella bacteria in an unopened package of the product.
While any foodborne illness outbreak is unfortunate, this occurrence is an investigative success story. The investigation was a success in part due to the quick and decisive action taken by ConAgra, as well as the successful collaboration among the many local, state, and federal public health, agriculture, and regulatory agencies involved. The immediate action probably prevented more people from being infected with Salmonella by removing the potentially harmful product from store shelves and consumers’ homes early in the outbreak. However, it is still important for consumers to be vigilant and to learn about the latest recalls. For more information on the recall, see USDA’s announcement. It is also important to continue to follow safe food handling procedures when preparing any food, especially when using a microwave oven.