Better use of information technology might help minimize the next big foodborne illness outbreak, says Daniel Castro of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

Writing in the foundation’s newsletter, Castro says IT innovations could help public health officials identify and trace outbreaks more quickly.

“For example, if a nationwide system of interoperable electronic health records were made available in real-time for public research, this could allow epidemiologists to track outbreaks from unreported or undiagnosed illnesses by looking at data on reported symptoms,” Castro suggests.

He also points out that the FDA is developing new technologies to rapidly capture, analyze and share data on foodborne pathogens through a web-based, interactive system.  Updating the agency’s tools for monitoring food safety was among the initiatives announced Oct. 6 by FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg.


Castro notes that today’s big farms have embraced new technology, using wireless sensor networks to monitor moisture and soil conditions, radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags to track livestock production and GPS to automate plowing and seeding.  Technological innovation has encouraged consolidation in agriculture and the development of factory-scale farming, while at the same time widespread food distribution has increased the potential for foodborne illness outbreaks, such as the recent ones linked to eggs and peanuts, to effect consumers nationwide. 


He credits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s PulseNet, the nationwide network of state and local health departments, and regulatory labs, for its role in identifying illness clusters.  PulseNet performs molecular subtyping, much like fingerprinting, that  allows strains of organisms to be distinguished from one another. These DNA “fingerprints” are then added to a CDC computer database, which permits quick comparison of patterns.

Castro predicts innovation will go beyond PulseNet, reminding policymakers, “IT has an important role to play in monitoring, detecting and responding to public health threats and protecting the safety of our food supply.”