Curbing foodborne illnesses

Thursday, 23 February, 2006

According to OzFoodNet 5.4 million cases of foodborne illness occur in Australia annually.

Contaminated food causes approximately 18,000 hospitalisations and 120 deaths every year. The majority of foodborne illness is due to gastroenteritis which causes 2.1 million lost days off work, 1.2 million people to visit a doctor and 300,000 prescriptions for antibiotics.

Craig Shadbolt, NSW Food Authority says Australia has one of the safest food chains in the world, but there are still gaps and ways to improve.

"Accurate investigation of foodborne disease outbreak is crucial for the development of microbial risk assessments and providing evidence for food safety policy intervention."

"There are numerous examples of successful outbreak investigations between agencies at state and national levels but at the same token, there are challenges faced by communicable diseases units and food safety agencies that should be resolved where possible," he said.

The investigation of foodborne disease outbreaks in NSW is undertaken in accordance with a joint protocol between the NSW Health Department and Food Authority. The Health Department interviews sick people to establish a common link between the people and a food source. If a link is found the Food Authority steps in to assess the situation and take action.

"The Garibaldi Outbreak in South Australia is an example of a high profile disease outbreak investigation. One hundred and twenty adults got sick, twenty-three children contracted severe kidney damage and one child died.

"The disease outbreak investigation traced the source of the Garibaldi back to contaminated salami. Following this outbreak very severe regulations were introduced and salami manufacturers had to conform to these new regulations.

"This was a successful disease outbreak investigation as the source was found. However improving co-ordination and understanding between different agencies has the potential to substantially reduce the time taken to resolve outbreaks and provide more accurate information for microbial risk assessment.

"We need to maintain strong linkages with academia to keep pace with technological developments. That is to make time to talk to researchers to keep up with latest developments, as well as informing the researchers of priority areas that would assist governments and industry to do their job better."

"We also need to stay abreast of new molecular techniques. We need to examine rapid methods to identify subtypes of Salmonella to assist with timely intervention during food poisoning outbreaks. These new molecular techniques have the potential to halve the time taken for some outbreak investigations, hence reducing the number of people that fall ill," he said.

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