Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a year-long series that highlights the food safety initiatives, programs, and activities implemented in certain U.S. states.
If you love lakes, gophers, and exemplary food safety infrastructure and leadership, Minnesota is the place for you. Welcome to the incomparable Land of 10,000 Lakes, the indomitable Gopher State, a state that showcases strong and enviable food safety priorities and relationships among regulatory agencies, academia, agriculture, industry, and consumers that are arguably second to none.
How did this seemingly idyllic situation come to be?
Simply stated, Minnesota citizens have a historical and inspiring commitment to public health, according to William Hueston, DVM, MS, PhD, ACVPM, a professor of veterinary medicine, public health, and public affairs who directs global leadership initiatives for the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety (CAHFS) at the University of Minnesota (UMN) College of Veterinary Medicine.
For starters, there has long been close collaboration between the Minnesota Department of Health’s (MDH) foodborne disease epidemiologists and the MDH laboratory that handles samples from sick people, Dr. Hueston says. “The MDH Infectious Disease section focuses on aggressive scientific investigation of disease outbreaks and documentation of findings in refereed scientific journals,” he relates. “Not only do they rapidly respond to foodborne disease, they also continue to raise the bar on the methods used to investigate and respond effectively to outbreaks.”
Another food safety plus in Minnesota is the collocation of the MDH, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), and the Board of Animal Health in the Orville Freeman Building in downtown St. Paul, the state capital. “The MDH lab for human samples and the MDA lab for food samples are side by side,” Dr. Hueston says, “and there is direct connection between the laboratory building and the epidemiologists. Working side by side builds collaboration and teamwork for more effective investigations and response.”
Dr. Hueston is also quick to extol the food safety benefits of what he calls the unique partnership between Minnesota government agencies and UMN.
“There is a very strong epidemiology training program at the UMN School of Public Health (SPH) so that many, if not most, of the MDH epidemiologists have training and graduate degrees from UMN,” he begins. “And there is active recruitment of MDH and MDA employees as adjunct faculty, so that UMN students get ‘real’ insights into the way government works and how to handle current foodborne illness challenges.”
Minnesota boasts one of the most effective foodborne disease surveillance systems in the U.S., Dr. Hueston points out, thanks to an infrastructure whereby the investigation of the food consumption history of ill people begins immediately, as samples are received at the lab from physicians.
To that end, UMN public health students (who are available to work nights and weekends outside the normal work window of state government employees), Golden Gophers affectionately known as “team diarrhea,” conduct phone interviews with consumers stricken with foodborne illness in a timely fashion.
“The MDH was early to adopt molecular tools for ‘fingerprinting’ the bacteria recovered from diarrhea, allowing identification of the connections between patients and between sick people and contaminated food,” Dr. Hueston adds. “And MDH was an early contributor to PulseNet, the CDC clearinghouse for pulse field electrophoresis ‘fingerprints’ across the nation. The PulseNet partnership has enabled Minnesota to crack several high visibility national foodborne illness outbreaks where other states and federal government agencies were stumped.”
Center of Excellence
Acknowledging the excellence and leadership exuded by the MDH and UMN SPH, on Aug. 31, 2012 the CDC designated Minnesota as an Integrated Food Safety Center of Excellence (CoE) to help fulfill its role in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).