Investigating the Cause of a Foodborne Illness Outbreak

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Step into a world of virtual reality through NCEH’s e-Learning on Environmental Assessment of Foodborne Illness Outbreaks course.
Step into a world of virtual reality through NCEH’s e-Learning on Environmental Assessment of Foodborne Illness Outbreaks course.

It’s a scene that routinely plays out in the restaurant industry: restaurant manager meets health inspector; health inspector examines the restaurant’s conditions and food-handling practices; health inspector gives restaurant manager’s facility a passing or failing grade and if the restaurant fails the inspection, then the inspector provides instructions and information on improvements.

The outcome of the inspection can make the difference between preparing for the lunch rush and having to close temporarily.

This routine and systematic approach to ensuring and monitoring proper food preparation and handling is as common as a combo meal or a two-for-one special. But what happens when things go wrong and someone gets sick after eating in a restaurant?

What’s the systematic approach for that scenario? Now there is one.

Inspection of restaurants and other food service establishments is one of the most common functions of local health departments, typically housed in environmental health sections. Yet many staff members lack training on how their role in an outbreak scenario differs from that of a routine inspection. For that reason, CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) developed an interactive training course to help health department staff take a systematic approach when handling foodborne illness outbreaks.

Staff who take the e-Learning on Environmental Assessment of Foodborne Illness Outbreaks course will acquire the skills and knowledge to

  • investigate foodborne illness outbreaks as a member of an outbreak response team;
  • identify an outbreak’s environmental causes; and
  • recommend appropriate control measures.

“When you deal with foodborne illness outbreaks, it’s different (than routine health inspections),” says Carol Selman, a senior scientist at NCEH whose vision led to development of the course. “More than half of all foodborne illness outbreaks are associated with restaurants. Foodborne illness is a problem, but addressing environmental causes can help.”

Selman says that the training course will not only help food safety officials learn how to shorten an outbreak of foodborne illness, but also why it happened. Knowing why it happened can help prevent future outbreaks.

The Course

Before starting NCEH’s “Environmental Assessment of Foodborne Illness Outbreaks” course, you will take a pretest. The pretest assesses your knowledge of proper food preparation, food handling practices, and foodborne illnesses.

The online, virtual course takes an estimated 8 to 10 hours to complete. You can start and stop the course at any time to finish it at your own pace.

Once you finish, you will receive certificates of completion. You can also get Continuing Education Credits (CEUs).The course consists of eight sections:

  • Your assignment
  • Overview of foodborne illness outbreak environmental assessments
  • Effective interviewing skills
  • Observation and record review
  • Sampling
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Organizing assessment information
  • Control strategies and concluding actions

The course takes you into a virtual world where your role is environmental health investigator. You’re granted unique access and become part of a team of special agents who are tasked with ensuring the public’s health.

The course’s introduction has you arriving at headquarters in a remote desert, where you’re given credentials and the assignment.

With the click of your computer’s mouse, you begin to investigate a restaurant that has been the scene of a recent foodborne illness outbreak. You have access to areas within restaurant, including the dining room, kitchen and food preparation areas and manager’s office.

Want to ask the restaurant’s employees questions about what they did before, during or after the outbreak? You can in this virtual world. Did the manager overlook a letter from the county health department regarding a food-handler’s certification?? Go into the manager’s office and find out. What are the temperatures of the food, refrigerators and water in the dishwasher and kitchen sinks? Walk your virtual self through the facility and see for yourself.

Based on your assessment skills inside the restaurant, including the areas you’ve reviewed and the questions you’ve asked employees, the online course generates results and applies them to what’s known about foodborne illnesses.

“The training is interactive, which is really cool,” Selman says. “It keeps you engaged and helps you remember the information.”

States and localities can also register for CDC’s new foodborne illness surveillance system— the National Environmental Assessment Reporting System (NEARS). NEARS is a national effort to systematically collect environmental data about illness outbreaks that can be analyzed, interpreted, and disseminated to help CDC and other public health agencies understand how and why such outbreaks occur.

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Page last reviewed: February 12, 2016
Page last updated: February 12, 2016