Increased awareness and implementation of proper food safety in restaurants and delis may help prevent many of the foodborne illness outbreaks reported each year in the U.S., according to data from the CDC. Researchers identified gaps in the education of restaurant workers as well as public health surveillance, two critical tools necessary in preventing a common and costly public health problem.
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The CDC research identifies food preparation and handling practices, worker health policies, and handwashing practices among the underlying environmental factors that often are not reported during foodborne outbreaks, even though nearly half of all the outbreaks that are reported each year are associated with restaurants or delis.
“Inspectors have not had a formal system to capture and report the underlying factors that likely contribute to foodborne outbreaks or a way to inform prevention strategies and implement routine corrective measures in restaurants, delis, and schools to prevent future outbreaks,” says Carol Selman, head of CDC’s Environmental Health Specialists Network team at the National Center for Environmental Health.
Since 2000, CDC has worked with state and local health departments to develop new surveillance and training tools to advance the use of environmental health assessments as a part of foodborne outbreak investigations.
The first tool is the National Voluntary Environmental Assessment Information System, which is a new surveillance system targeted to state, tribal, and other localities that inspect and regulate restaurants and other food venues such as banquet facilities, schools, and other institutions. It provides an avenue to capture underlying environmental assessment data that describes what happened and how events most likely lead to a foodborne outbreak.
And the second is a free interactive e-Learning course that is geared toward state and local health departments to help investigate foodborne illness outbreaks in restaurants and other food service establishments as a member of a larger outbreak response team; to identify an outbreak’s environmental causes; and to recommend appropriate control measures. This e-Learning course is also available to members of the food industry, academia, and the public—anyone interested in understanding the causes of foodborne outbreaks.
The objective of these tools is to allow state and local public health food safety programs to report data from environmental assessments as a part of outbreak investigations, thereby helping to prevent future foodborne outbreaks. The data surveillance system and e-Learning course will debut in early 2014.
“We are taking a key step forward in capturing critical data that will allow us to assemble a big picture view of the environmental causes of foodborne outbreaks,” says Selman.