Researchers have developed a restricted-access system designed to assist those involved in investigating foodborne illness outbreaks.

The shared and searchable data catalogue of previous outbreaks is called the Global Foodsource Identifier (GFI).

Once it is in use by the international food safety community, researchers hope that GFI will assist during outbreak investigations and support risk-based sampling strategies during traceback tasks. It may also help in the identification of emerging food safety threats.

The networking platform is intended to host an online global society involved in outbreak investigation, who can communicate and exchange non-confidential data in a harmonized, comparable manner.

Attributes of outbreak records
Once an outbreak strain is identified and typed, the data catalogue can be searched for previous outbreaks caused by the same or a similar causative agent, to see if a certain country has been affected, or common setting or food source was involved.

Each record includes information on the type of causative agent, identified food source and epidemiological information.

It is hosted within a Virtual Research Environment (VRE), which allows document exchange, communication, data visualization and analysis between members.

According to the study published in the journal Food Control, scientists selected 46 attributes characterizing outbreak records to be included in the catalogue, under four categories: causative agent, epidemiological data, food source or report details.

Each record is associated to tags for outbreak year, causative agent, country and food source (type, subtype and variety), and a unique URL is generated. Management information is also added including author, maintainer, version, state, date of creation and most recent update. Record visibility may be set as restricted so only VRE members will see the full entry or public.

The current membership policy of GFI is restricted so applicants must ask the VRE managers to join. Membership is managed by the Technical University of Denmark.

Alternatives and building network
At the public launch of GFI, the data catalogue was populated with records of 102 outbreaks in Denmark from 2005 to 2016, covering the most frequent pathogens and a range of typing methods. This was done to illustrate the potential of GFI to new members and encourage them to contribute their own records.

Some countries have national databases with information on foodborne, waterborne or infectious disease outbreaks, but they are structured in different ways and are not interconnected, said scientists.

There are also several existing international databases such as the European Surveillance System (TESSy), NoroNet by RIVM, PulseNet International, the Global Microbial Identifier or GenomeTrakr.

However, most of these are targeted at a specific pathogen or typing method, and many are only fully available to a certain number of people or have limited accessibility for the public, said researchers.

Users from countries where international network-wide communication is already done during outbreak investigations may show more resistance to join GFI, believing it offers no added value, said scientists. Assitional funding will also be needed for maintenance and adaptation of the VRE to the community’s needs, according to the study.

The idea originated in a European research project called COMPARE that ran from 2014 to 2019 and involved 30 participants with the Technical University of Denmark leading the work. The aim was to improve identification and mitigation of emerging infectious diseases and foodborne illness outbreaks.

Future developments of GFI may include private chats and conference calls among members.

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