When revolutionary epidemiologist William Keene started working for the Oregon Public Health Division in 1990, he also started collecting packaging from recalled products, restaurant menus, and other elements from his outbreak investigations and displaying them in his office. “These exhibits commemorate why we do these investigations and the kind of products and things that can cause people to get sick in foodborne outbreaks,” Keene said in an introductory video to his collection. The state’s senior epidemiologist died in December 2013, but the exhibits still reside in his office and have since come to be known as the International Outbreak Museum.

Image courtesy of the International Outbreak Museum.
Last week, the museum’s website went live, along with the first digital content. The Northwest Center for Foodborne Outbreak Management, Epidemiology, and Surveillance (FOMES) is working to digitize all of the physical exhibits for the site. The museum isn’t just about foodborne illnesses. One of the oldest exhibits is a box of Rely Tampons that was associated with Toxic Shock Syndrome and Staphylococcus aureus in 1978. There are also cans of contaminated leather spray that caused acute respiratory illness. But Paul Cieslak, medical director of Oregon’s Acute and Communicable Disease Prevention Section, says that “the vast majority” of it is related to foodborne cases. A lot of the visuals are original packaging from implicated foods with a facsimile of the food itself. For example, there’s a plastic replica of a raw, whole broiler chicken in genuine Foster Farms packaging. In addition to U.S. investigations, the collection includes packaging from French brie and German fenugreek seeds that were implicated in European outbreaks. Epidemiologists outside Oregon are welcome to submit an exhibit from their own outbreak investigation to the International Outbreak Museum. Cieslak told Food Safety News that with the website only a week old, the museum hasn’t received any submissions yet, but that colleagues have expressed the intention to submit. “Collectively, we’ve pooled information from thousands of outbreak investigations and that … gets distilled and becomes the underpinning of our general knowledge,” Keene said in his video. This is how we know that E. coli O157 is often linked to hamburgers or produce and that Norovirus infections are often linked to food handlers working when they’re sick. The museum is available for tour by appointment, but the physical exhibits are mainly for public health professionals. The digitized collection of pictures, data, questionnaires and narratives from outbreak is meant to make the museum broadly available to the public. FOMES selected 12 major outbreaks, including the 1993 Jack in the Box hamburgers, 2006 bagged spinach, and 2012 Foundation Farm Raw Milk to start with. Each outbreak page has a summary, exhibit photos, and any available elements available, such as sample questionnaires used in the investigation. “We’re hoping that it’ll be used by students of epidemiology, public health people and ultimately just the curious general public,” Cieslak says. “We wanted to memorialize what we’ve learned about foodborne illness in a way that resonates with a lot of people.” (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)