Research – Investigations of Possible Multistate Outbreaks of Salmonella, Shiga Toxin–Producing Escherichia coli, and Listeria monocytogenes Infections — United States, 2016


Problem/Condition: Salmonella, Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli (STEC), and Listeria monocytogenes are the leading causes of multistate foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States. Responding to multistate outbreaks quickly and effectively and applying lessons learned about outbreak sources, modes of transmission, and risk factors for infection can prevent additional outbreak-associated illnesses and save lives. This report summarizes the investigations of multistate outbreaks and possible outbreaks of Salmonella, STEC, and L. monocytogenes infections coordinated by CDC during the 2016 reporting period.

Period Covered: 2016. An investigation was considered to have occurred in 2016 if it began during 2016 and ended on or before March 31, 2017, or if it began before January 1, 2016, and ended during March 31, 2016–March 31, 2017.

Description of System: CDC maintains a database of investigations of possible multistate foodborne and animal-contact outbreaks caused by Salmonella, STEC, and L. monocytogenes. Data were collected by local, state, and federal investigators during the detection, investigation and response, and control phases of the outbreak investigations. Additional data sources used for this report included PulseNet, the national molecular subtyping network based on isolates uploaded by local, state, and federal laboratories, and the Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System (FDOSS), which collects information from state, local, and territorial health departments and federal agencies about single-state and multistate foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States. Multistate outbreaks reported to FDOSS were linked using a unique outbreak identifier to obtain food category information when a confirmed or suspected food source was identified. Food categories were determined and assigned in FDOSS according to a classification scheme developed by CDC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration.

A possible multistate outbreak was determined by expert judgment to be an outbreak if supporting data (e.g., temporal, geographic, demographic, dietary, travel, or food history) suggested a common source. A solved outbreak was an outbreak for which a specific kind of food or animal was implicated (i.e., confirmed or suspected) as the source. Outbreak-level variables included number of illnesses, hospitalizations, cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), and deaths; the number of states with illnesses; date of isolation for the earliest and last cases; demographic data describing patients associated with a possible outbreak (e.g., age, sex, and state of residence); the types of data collected (i.e., epidemiologic, traceback, or laboratory); the outbreak source, mode of transmission, and exposure location; the name or brand of the source; whether the source was suspected or confirmed; whether a food was imported into the United States; the types of regulatory agencies involved; whether regulatory action was taken (and what type of action); whether an outbreak was publicly announced by CDC via website posting; beginning and end date of the investigation; and general comments about the investigation. The number of illnesses, hospitalizations, cases of HUS, and deaths were characterized by transmission mode, pathogen, outcome (i.e., unsolved, solved with suspected source, or solved with confirmed source), source, and food or animal category.

Results: During the 2016 reporting period, 230 possible multistate outbreaks were detected and 174 were investigated. A median of 24 possible outbreaks was under investigation per week, and investigations were open for a median of 37 days. Of these 174 possible outbreaks investigated, 56 were excluded from this analysis because they occurred in a single state, were linked to international travel, or were pseudo-outbreaks (e.g., a group of similar isolates resulting from laboratory media contamination rather than infection in patients). Of the remaining 118 possible multistate outbreaks, 50 were determined to be outbreaks and 39 were solved (18 with a confirmed food source, 10 with a suspected food source, 10 with a confirmed animal source, and one with a suspected animal source). Sprouts were the most commonly implicated food category in solved multistate foodborne outbreaks (five). Chicken was the source of the most foodborne outbreak-related illnesses (134). Three outbreaks involved novel food–pathogen pairs: flour and STEC, frozen vegetables and L. monocytogenes, and bagged salad and L. monocytogenes. Eleven outbreaks were attributed to contact with animals (10 attributed to contact with backyard poultry and one to small turtles). Thirteen of 18 multistate foodborne disease outbreaks with confirmed sources resulted in product action, including 10 outbreaks with recalls, two with market withdrawals, and one with an FSIS public health alert. Twenty outbreaks, including 11 foodborne and nine animal-contact outbreaks, were announced to the public by CDC via its website, Facebook, and Twitter. These announcements resulted in approximately 910,000 webpage views, 55,000 likes, 66,000 shares, and 5,800 retweets.

Interpretation: During the 2016 reporting period, investigations of possible multistate outbreaks occurred frequently, were resource intensive, and required a median of 37 days of investigation. Fewer than half (42%) of the 118 possible outbreaks investigated were determined to have sufficient data to meet the definition of a multistate outbreak. Moreover, of the 50 outbreaks with sufficient data, approximately three fourths were solved.

Public Health Action: Close collaboration among CDC, FDA, FSIS and state and local health and agriculture partners is central to successful outbreak investigations. Identification of novel outbreak sources and trends in sources provides insights into gaps in food safety and safe handling of animals, which helps focus prevention strategies. Summarizing investigations of possible multistate outbreaks can provide insights into the investigative process, improve future investigations, and help prevent illnesses. Although identifying and investigating possible multistate outbreaks require substantial resources and investment in public health infrastructure, they are important in determining outbreak sources and implementing prevention and control measures.

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