GLOBAL – The Codex Committee on Food Hygiene has drafted a new guideline on microbiological foodborne outbreaks which provides countries with a structured approach to preparedness and management for when an outbreak takes place.

The contamination of food may occur at any stage, from primary production through to the consumer, causing illness and in some chronic cases serious health effects or death.

An outbreak may be swiftly identified at a particular event or source but may also be much harder to discover and deal with.

Preparedness through establishing networks and good communication between different sectors including food control authorities, veterinary authorities, laboratories, public health authorities and the community means information can be easily exchanged and outbreaks rapidly investigated.

Gudrun Sandø, a veterinary advisor at the Danish veterinary and food administration, used firsthand experience of such networks when dealing with foodborne outbreaks to spearhead the work on the development of this guideline together with Constanza Vergara from Chile and Kris De Smet from the European Union.

Sando noted that problems can arise if a country does not have good local communication at different levels and between different sectors.

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,” she said. “

“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.

Constanza Vergara brought a particularly valuable regional perspective to the development of the text.

“In my view this document brings together the structure and furthermore the preparedness needed to manage an outbreak in what is usually a very chaotic and time-sensitive situation,” she said.

Data fundamental to addressing foodborne outbreak

Science and data are fundamental when addressing a foodborne outbreak. Sandø revealed that new molecular typing methods helps them to compare different strains of a pathogen enabling them to focus on specific areas for investigation and find clusters they weren’t aware of 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,” she said.

Codex texts are often a particularly valuable resource for countries who are still developing their national food safety control systems.

John Oppong-Otoo, a Food Safety Officer at the African Union Interafrican Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR), welcomed the new guideline.

Despite advancements in the management of foodborne pathogens, outbreaks still occur and countries need to be equipped with all relevant tools to address them to minimize their public health and trade impacts.

“The newly adopted Codex guidance will be very influential in shaping knowledge and practice with regards to the management of foodborne disease outbreaks,” he said.

The guidance will be most relevant in the countries that are not yet using this kind of structured approach.

By establishing networks, communicating regularly across sectors and sharing data they will be in a stronger position for early detection of outbreaks and then rapid management and resolution of the situation.

“It’s key for all countries to have communication and data sharing at an early stage,” said Sandø.

The text will now be sent for adoption to the next session of the Codex Alimentarius Commission later in 2022.

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