CSI: The Food Version

Health agencies today use many of the same investigative and scientific methods used by police in criminal cases to identify a source of food contamination. For example, through the use of DNA sampling, food inspectors can track down exactly where an outbreak of foodborne illness began.

This use of high-tech investigation techniques has made it much easier to pinpoint those companies along the food chain that may cut corners, resulting in contamination of products sold to the public.

How do today’s “food police” hunt down a culprit?

A Crime is Reported

The process begins when a person goes to a doctor or hospital with serious foodborne illness symptoms. If laboratory tests confirm a food-borne pathogen or toxin, they are reported to local and state health departments, which forward the information to a national databank. Positive cultures are further tested to identify a specific strain or DNA fingerprint. When more than one case identifies the same strain or outbreak strain, an investigation is launched.

Detectives Are Dispatched

Food investigators are sent to interview the sick persons about what they ate, where they ate and when. If they find a commonality, such as a specific product, grocery store, restaurant, or event, inspectors begin taking samples for testing. If samples test positive, they are further tested to determine if the samples are infected with the same strain of pathogen or toxin as discovered in the people who got sick.

The Culprit is Identified

Once the source of the outbreak is identified, federal and state agencies report the source of the outbreak in a type of “all-points bulletin.” Notifications go out to stores to remove a product from shelves, to manufacturing plants to stop production and to restaurants to close. The public, through the media and the internet, are warned. Those people who recently ate the now-recalled product but who did not realize the potential seriousness of the illness they are suffering, can now go to the doctor and get proper treatment.

Victims Have Recourse

Foodborne illness can be life threatening, so your top priority should be to seek medical attention. You can also assist your doctors and the food police in tracking down the cause of your injuries.

Once you are on your way to recovery, you may want to consider holding the food criminal responsible for your injuries. Foodborne illness is an assault on your body and just like the victim of a criminal assault you have rights and recourse. You cannot send them to jail, but you can make them compensate you for your losses. You purchased their food or ate at their restaurant and expected to enjoy your meal, not end up in the hospital with piles of bills.

In recent years, more and more recalls are occurring because food manufacturers and processors are required to conduct more stringent product testing and this is leading to recalls, hopefully, before people get sick from eating a contaminated food product. However, many recalls still occur after people get sick and there is an outbreak of a foodborne illness.

Still curious? Check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention webpage on Foodborne Outbreak Investigations.

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