A faster government reaction to the 2011 Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak linked to ground turkey might have resulted in less illnesses, according to a new analysis.

Health officials identified ground turkey from Cargill Meat Solutions as the likely outbreak source a full 22 weeks after the first person fell ill and 10 weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detected an outbreak, according to the study, which was conducted by Pew Charitable Trusts and published on the organization’s site Tuesday. Had the ground turkey been recalled sooner, some of the 136 illnesses linked to the outbreak may have been avoided, the study points out. Click here for Pew’s timeline of the outbreak investigation. The shortcomings of the investigation into the 2011 outbreak highlight gaps in Salmonella surveillance and outbreak response across the country, says Pew. The report points out three major shortcomings:    

– Federal and state health officials often fail to prioritize Salmonella outbreaks: Patients may not be interviewed promptly, not all states require that Salmonella isolated from a patient at a clinical lab must be sent to public health agencies and public health labs do not perform DNA sequencing in a timely or universal manner

– When Salmonella isolates found in meat or poultry samples are uploaded to the CDC’s foodborne pathogen database, PulseNet, the food is not identified by brand name, processing plant or expiration date, which can lead to a delay in matching the food with an isolate from a patient.

– Government agencies often wait until they are nearly certain of the food source responsible for an outbreak before contacting the food company that produced it instead of taking immediate action when a likely suspect is discovered.

“Foodborne illnesses are preventable, so when we experience outbreaks we must learn from our mistakes,” said Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s food safety campaign in a statement Tuesday. “Pew’s analysis shows that there are steps public health agencies at the state and federal level can take that may enable them to more quickly identify the likely source of the outbreak, initiate the recall and protect consumers.” Salmonella infections place a large burden on the healthcare system, the report points out. The bacterium causes an estimated one million illnesses each year, resulting in $11 billion in healthcare costs and the most hospitalizations and deaths of any foodborne pathogen. For this reason, the report says, Salmonella deserves more attention from public health agencies. In order to address the problems highlighted in its report, Pew recommends the following measures:

– Federal and state officials should make the detection of and response to salmonella outbreaks a priority by enhancing the surveillance system for these bacteria.

– The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should modify the retail arm of the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System so that it can help detect and respond to outbreaks. Specifically, FDA should require that information on the brand, processing plant, and purchase date of meat and poultry retail samples be included when the DNA fingerprint of bacteria isolates are uploaded to PulseNet. Moreover, the DNA fingerprints should be uploaded more quickly.

– FDA, FSIS, CDC, and state authorities must develop a mechanism that facilitates engagement with food companies in the early stages of an outbreak investigation when information such as production schedules and distribution patterns could speed identification of contaminated foods.

Pew suggests that CDC take these recommendations into consideration as it decides how to fulfill Section 205 of the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, which mandates that CDC work with federal and state food safety agencies to “enhance foodborne illness surveillance systems to improve the collection, analysis, reporting, and usefulness of data on foodborne illnesses.”  Marler Clark, the Food Safety Law Firm and the underwriter for Food Safety News, represented several of the victims of this outbreak.