Experts at a Codex committee meeting have drafted guidance on how to handle microbiological foodborne outbreaks.

The guideline will give countries a structured approach on preparedness and management to limit the scale of such outbreaks. It covers surveillance and monitoring systems, analytical methods, risk assessment and communication, using epidemiological and lab data and lessons learned.

The Codex Committee on Food Hygiene was hosted by the United States in February and March and chaired by Emilio Esteban, chief scientist at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Establishing networks and communication between different sectors including food control agencies, veterinary authorities, laboratories, public health bodies and the community means better exchange of information so outbreaks can be rapidly investigated.

“To facilitate a common understanding and a consistent approach to these situations, such networks should use comparable methods, common definitions and interpretations to the extent possible, as well as transparent exchange of information,” according to the guidance.

The document has been sent for adoption at the next session of the Codex Alimentarius Commission later this year.

Problems because of lack of communication
Gudrun Sandø, a veterinary advisor at the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, helped develop the guide.

“Foodborne outbreaks can go between or across borders so we also need to have the kind of structure where we communicate with each other internationally. What we have seen and learned is that in some countries there is not always a natural communication between public health and food safety authorities. It is really important that these people know each other and have networks so you know who to go to. When there is an outbreak you need to move quickly,” she said.

“We have these new molecular typing methods to compare different strains of a pathogen which enable us to focus on specific areas for investigation and are helping us find clusters we didn’t know about before. You need epidemiological data as well, but these new molecular typing methods are a tool that have changed how we do outbreak investigation and have improved the success rate for finding the source of an outbreak.”

Criteria to categorize an outbreak and develop response plans includes the number of patients, the source of contamination and business history, disease severity, geographic spread and whether it is ongoing or not. Referring to an outbreak as a crisis can affect consumer confidence in a product or food category that is not implicated in the incident.

Constanza Vergara, from Chile, said the document will help officials manage an outbreak in what is “usually a very chaotic and time-sensitive situation.”

Other items discussed
Other work on draft guidelines to control Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) in raw beef, raw milk and raw milk cheeses, fresh leafy vegetables, and sprouts is ongoing.

Also at the meeting, representatives for Bolivia, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria and Peru showed interest in developing a plan to work on food safety guidelines for traditional markets with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

Jeffrey LeJeune, food safety officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, presented recent relevant work.

The FAO/WHO Joint Expert Meeting on Microbiological Risk Assessment (JEMRA) reports set for publication in 2022 include a risk assessment on Listeria monocytogenes, STEC in meat and dairy, low moisture foods and water reuse in fisheries and dairy.

Future work will include fresh fruit and vegetables, Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry, and foodborne viruses.

The next meeting of this Codex committee is planned for November with discussions on Vibrio species in seafood and the control of viruses in food expected to feature.

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