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Foodborne illness outbreaks at retail establishments — National Environmental Assessment Reporting System, 16 state and local health departments, 2014–2016
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  • Description:
    Problem/Condition: State and local public health departments report hundreds of foodborne illness outbreaks each year to CDC and are primarily responsible for investigations of these outbreaks. Typically, investigations involve epidemiology, laboratory, and environmental health components. Health departments voluntarily report epidemiologic and laboratory data from their foodborne illness outbreak investigations to CDC through the Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System (FDOSS); however, minimal environmental health data from outbreak investigations are reported to FDOSS.

    Period Covered: 2014–2016.

    Description of System: In 2014, CDC launched the National Environmental Assessment Reporting System (NEARS) to complement FDOSS surveillance and to use these data to enhance prevention efforts. State and local health departments voluntarily report data from their foodborne illness outbreak investigations of retail food establishments. These data include characteristics of foodborne illness outbreaks (e.g., agent), characteristics of establishments with outbreaks (e.g., number of meals served daily), food safety policies and practices of these establishments (e.g., glove use policies), and characteristics of outbreak investigations (e.g., timeliness of investigation activities). NEARS is the only available data source that includes characteristics of retail establishments with foodborne illness outbreaks.

    Results: During 2014–2016, a total of 16 state and local public health departments reported data to NEARS on 404 foodborne illness outbreaks at retail establishments. The majority of outbreaks with a suspected or confirmed agent were caused by norovirus (61.1%). The majority of outbreaks with identified contributing factors had at least one factor associated with food contamination by a worker who was ill or infectious (58.6%). Almost half (47.4%) of establishments with outbreaks had a written policy excluding ill workers from handling food or working. Approximately one third (27.7%) had a written disposable glove use policy. Paid sick leave was available for at least one worker in 38.3% of establishments. For most establishments with outbreaks (68.7%), environmental health investigators initiated their component of the investigation soon after learning about the outbreak (i.e., the same day) and completed their component in one or two visits to the establishment (75.0%). However, in certain instances, contacting the establishment and completing the environmental health component of the investigation occurred much later (>8 days).

    Interpretation: Most outbreaks reported to NEARS were caused by norovirus, and contamination of food by workers who were ill or infectious contributed to more than half of outbreaks with contributing factors; these findings are consistent with findings from other national outbreak data sets and highlight the role of workers in foodborne illness outbreaks. The relative lack of written policies for ill workers and glove use and paid sick leave for workers in establishments with outbreaks indicates gaps in food safety practices that might have a role in outbreak prevention. The environmental health component of the investigation for most outbreaks was initiated quickly, yet the longer initiation timeframe for certain outbreaks suggests the need for improvement.

    Public Health Action: Retail establishments can reduce viral foodborne illness outbreaks by protecting food from contamination through proper hand hygiene and excluding workers who are ill or infectious from working. NEARS data can help prioritize training and interventions for state and local food safety programs and the retail food establishment industry by identifying gaps in food safety policies and practices and types of establishments vulnerable to outbreaks. Improvement of certain outbreak investigation practices (e.g., delayed initiation of environmental health investigations) can accelerate identification of the agent and implementation of interventions. Future analysis comparing establishments with and without outbreaks will contribute knowledge about how establishments’ characteristics and food safety policies and practices relate to foodborne illness outbreaks and provide information to develop effective prevention approaches.

    Suggested citation for this article: Lipcsei LE, Brown LG, Coleman EW, et al. Foodborne Illness Outbreaks at Retail Establishments — National Environmental Assessment Reporting System, 16 State and Local Health Departments, 2014–2016. MMWR Surveill Summ 2019;68(No. SS-1):1–20. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.ss6801a1.

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