Foodborne illnesses create a large impact on both the health and economy of the United States. Early detection of an outbreak is essential to preventing additional illnesses. Foodborne illnesses are commonly identified through foodborne illness complaint systems, and it is vital that public health agencies ensure their systems are functioning effectively for successful detection of foodborne outbreaks. The purpose of this study was to provide a descriptive summary of foodborne illness complaint data in Rhode Island and to evaluate the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) foodborne illness complaint system's ability to detect foodborne outbreaks using the Council to Improve Foodborne Outbreak Response (CIFOR) target performance measures. Data were collected from all foodborne illness complaints reported to RIDOH by the public from 1 January 2010 to 31 December 2017. During this period, 1,218 foodborne illness complaints in total were reported to RIDOH; 85% of complainants reported their illness within 7 days of symptom onset. Most complainants (73%) did not seek medical attention. There were 54 outbreaks, 80% of which were identified by the complaint system. Most pathogens that were identified during an outbreak detected by the complaint system were nonreportable (69%). CIFOR metrics indicate that the complaint system is functioning (i) at an acceptable level of illness complaints expected based on population size and (ii) at preferable levels for metrics related to outbreak detection. This review of the RIDOH foodborne illness complaint system provides evidence for the vital role of complaint systems in detecting foodborne illness outbreaks. In addition, it demonstrates that complaint systems can detect illnesses in a timely manner, likely preventing further illnesses. This was the first multiyear evaluation of Rhode Island's illness complaint surveillance system and will serve as a baseline for future analyses to monitor trends in performance.

  • This was the first multiyear evaluation of RIDOH's illness complaint system.

  • Eighty percent of RI foodborne outbreaks from 2010 to 2017 were detected via illness complaints.

  • RIDOH is detecting foodborne outbreaks at a preferable level per CIFOR metrics.

  • RIDOH is receiving illness complaints at an acceptable level per CIFOR metrics.

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