There are a number of problems that must be overcome in responding to outbreaks of foodborne illness. Public health officials continue to work on perfecting the surveillance systems that link illnesses and determine their causes. In general, keeping up with the discovery of new, and mutation of existing, foodborne illness causing pathogens presents an ongoing challenge. Efficient response to an outbreak is of primary concern. However, given the increasingly complex nature of the food industry in seeking to feed a heavily populated world, the barriers to ensuring current and effective education, inspection, monitoring and enforcement of proper food production and handling practices are seemingly endless.
New Disease-Causing Organisms & Outbreak Response
A historical analysis suggests that the occurrences of foodborne illnesses seem to be increasing. One explanation is that, due to the implementation and perfection of detection and surveillance methods, public health professionals, local, state, and federal agencies are better able to identify outbreaks and link them across many states. Where, at one time, cases of foodborne illnesses appeared to be erratic and random, the connections between these seemingly random illnesses can be more easily discovered by using federal surveillance systems put in place, such as FoodNet and PulseNet. Further, scientific advances are making new disease-causing organisms easier to identify; thus, more are being discovered and linked to food products. The challenge lies in determining how best to treat these newly discovered organisms when they cause infection and in effectively responding when they result in outbreaks.
Antibiotic resistance is currently a critical public health concern. Antibiotics are designed to kill or prevent the growth of bacteria. Bacteria that can normally be treated effectively with antibiotics can become resistant to them over time. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria mutate to resist the destructive and preventative effects the antibiotics are supposed to have on the bacteria. When an individual takes antibiotics, harmful bacteria may be killed, yet resistant bacteria that have mutated to survive the effects of the antibiotics will remain and can multiply. Over time, bacteria have become immune to the effectiveness of antibiotics through such mutation. The result is that antibiotics are less effective or may even be entirely ineffective in treating an illness, leaving it up to an individual’s immune system alone to fight the effects of the illness without any assistance. This, of course, presents a major problem in the treatment of foodborne illnesses. Antibiotics should only be used selectively, when they are necessary and will be beneficial in fighting off a particular infection.
Lack of Interdisciplinary Communication
To effectively combat the possibility of contamination of food products and the potential for outbreaks, surveillance of animals, food products, and humans is essential to prevent pathogens from entering and being distributed throughout the food chain. Many foodborne illness causing pathogens go undetected due to a lack of communication between the veterinary health, food production, and human health sectors. Interdisciplinary communication and cooperation is essential to answer critical questions, such as how pathogens are spread among animals, what the points of vulnerability in food production and distribution are, what new methods can be implemented to efficiently monitor and identify pathogens in a food source, how the members of the public can best protect themselves against contamination, and how illnesses can be effectively treated when they occur.
The globalization of food production and distribution presents tremendous challenges, not only in inspection and enforcement of safe food handling regulations, but also in identifying the specific source of contamination. Food products are produced, processed, and distributed on a multinational scale and dispersed throughout different countries. Thus, it is not uncommon for a particular outbreak to have a worldwide scope. Identification of the pathogen, the affiliated outbreak, and reactive dissemination of public warnings becomes incredibly complex in such a global context. The result is that widely dispersed outbreak occurrences last for longer periods of time, because when the source of contamination is more difficult to detect, surveillance officials may be unable to identify the particular danger quickly enough to cease its spread. Though the U.S. has implemented an effective surveillance system, it still contains many imperfections. To add, in many other countries, food surveillance systems are not economically feasible and many countries may lack the infrastructure necessary to effectively tackle the problem of foodborne illness.