Because food poisoning is so widespread and dangerous, all levels of government participate in a food poisoning response.  The level of agency involvement and response to a food poisoning outbreak depends on its severity and how widespread it is.  When the outbreak is localized in a small area, local agencies, such as city or county health departments, may singularly investigate the outbreak.  If a particular outbreak is spread over many cities or counties in a given state, that state’s health department will conduct the investigation.  Federal agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) intervene when a food poisoning outbreak affects a large number of people spread throughout many states.  In addition, when an illness is especially severe or has unusual characteristics, a state or local agency may request the assistance of federal agencies in investigating the illness or outbreak.

In investigating, the CDC coordinates with the FDA, and often notifies and consults with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) and/or, if necessary, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Federal agencies will organize and manage their efforts to discover when, where, and how the outbreak occurred and how best to prevent a similar outbreak in the future. They may analyze a food product’s production through its distribution, storage, and consumption to determine the possible origins of contamination.  Federal agencies may conduct tests, evaluate food safety in food production and service facilities, investigate each part of the food production process, and announce recalls of food products known or suspected to be contaminated.

Food Poisoning Response – State and Local Agencies

Local and state health agencies keep food safe in a number of ways and are an integral part of a food poisoning response.  Such agencies are responsible for inspecting food service facilities and food retailers.  They provide appropriate training and education, not only to food establishments and their employees, but to consumers as well. The main agency in Texas is the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS). Such local and state agencies also investigate food poisoning reported by health-care providers, such as doctors and laboratories, and investigate occurrences reported by affected citizens or their family members.  By conducting these investigations, the agencies can identify a foodborne illness and an outbreak when one occurs.  Other local and state agencies, such as agriculture and environmental agencies, may assist in providing the necessary information to pinpoint when, where and how an outbreak occurred.  Collecting information about various foodborne illness cases that are reported (a process termed “surveillance”) may guide local agencies in establishing preventative measures to protect against future localized outbreaks.  When federal assistance is needed, local and state agencies will report cases of foodborne illness to the CDC.

Food Poisoning Response – Federal Agencies

The Federal government is also critical in a food poisoning response.  When the CDC is notified of a possible outbreak by local and state agencies, it takes on various roles.  First, the CDC determines the scope and severity of the outbreak by analyzing the specific cases that have been reported and where the occurrences were located.  They may involve other federal agencies in the investigation, such as the FDA, USDA FSIS and EPA. The FDA and FSIS are responsible for regulation, inspection and enforcement in the U.S. food industry.

Though there are many surveillance systems in place to track the various causes of food poisoning used in the U.S., federal agencies have implemented two primary tools for discovering, investigating, analyzing and addressing food poisoning outbreaks: FoodNet and PulseNet. FoodNet is the result of the collaborative efforts of the CDC, FDA, USDA and state agencies from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, New Mexico, Oregon and Tennessee. FoodNet is an active surveillance network that organizes data on reported cases of foodborne illnesses, which, when analyzed, helps health departments get a clear picture of the causes and spread of foodborne illnesses that occur in the United States. It tracks outbreak occurrences and evaluates the efficacy and shortcomings of U.S. food safety regulations. With this information, efficient identification and effective preventative methods are formulated, implemented and revised. PulseNet is also the result of a collaborative effort of federal, state and local health agencies. PulseNet is a national computer network which connects foodborne illness cases that occur nationwide, enabling widespread outbreak identification and confirmation of the specific pathogen that caused it.

Food Poisoning Response – Outbreak Investigation Teams

When an outbreak is confirmed, a team may be formed consisting of experts and professionals from various fields to conduct an investigation of the specific outbreak.  A given team may consist of epidemiologists, microbiologists, environmental health specialists, food facility inspectors and enforcement officers. Other professionals necessary to investigate the particular outbreak are added to the investigation team as needed.  The process is interdisciplinary, and each professional contributes his or her own personal expertise to the investigation.

Food Poisoning Response – Food Production Industry

Compliance with regulations and inspections implemented by local, state and federal agencies requires proper training of employees in food industry companies that produce, process, package, distribute, store and sell food products.  Such companies must meet safety standards and are routinely inspected to ensure compliance. When an outbreak is attributed to a specific farming operation or food production company, the facility must take immediate measures to identify and eliminate the source of contamination.  They may cease food production and thoroughly sanitize the facility and any effected equipment, retrain their staff on food safety measures, and notify consumers that the contaminated product is being recalled.

Food Poisoning Response – Food Poisoning Lawyers and Attorneys

While you might not first consider lawyers to be a part of a food poisoning response, in fact they are.  And they may have the most power to prevent future outbreaks.  Federal, State and local agencies have very little power to enforce safe food handling procedures and even less power to punish the wrongdoers.

We live in a capitalist society and, for better or worse, behavior correlates directly to profits.  Big companies, including food companies, have been making decisions concerning consumer safety based on profits for decades.  The most notable example being the decision by Ford to produce the Pinto.   The only way to deter companies from putting us at risk in favor of profit is to make putting us at risk unprofitable.  The only two ways this can occur is through fines or civil law suits.  Because the FDA is limited politically from going after wrongdoers, civil law suits are the only real way to make choices concerning our safety unprofitable.  It is as simple as this: if a food company knows that it will cost tens-of-millions of dollars in law suits if they allow their food to become contaminated, they will spend millions of dollars to make sure their food does not become contaminated.  That makes good business sense and “business sense” is the only kind of sense a business has.