ABSTRACT

Leafy greens contaminated with Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli have continued to cause foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years and present a threat to public health. An important component of foodborne illness outbreak investigations is determining the source of the outbreak vehicle through traceback investigations. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is home to traceback investigation experts who use a standardized process to initiate, execute, and interpret the results of traceback investigations in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local partners. Traceback investigations of three outbreaks of Shiga toxin–producing E. coli infections linked to romaine lettuce in 2018 and 2019 were examined to demonstrate challenges, limitations, and opportunities for improvement. The three outbreaks resulted in a total of 474 illnesses, 215 hospitalizations, and 5 deaths. These illnesses were linked to the consumption of romaine lettuce from three distinct growing regions in Arizona and California. Some of the challenges encountered included the time it took to initiate a traceback, limited product-identifying information throughout the supply chain, lack of interoperability in record-keeping systems, and comingling of product from multiple suppliers. These challenges led to time delays in the identification of the farm source of the leafy greens and the inability to identify the root cause of contamination. Implementation of technology-enabled traceability systems, testing of these systems, and future regulations to incentivize adoption of traceability systems are some of the initiatives that will help address these challenges by improving traceback investigations and ultimately preventing foodborne illnesses and future outbreaks from occurring.

HIGHLIGHTS
  • Traceback investigations are a critical tool in the outbreak investigation process.

  • Traceback methods for E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks linked to lettuce are discussed.

  • Results of each traceback investigation led to the recovery of the outbreak strain.

  • There are many challenges and limitations inherent in current traceback methods.

  • Efforts are underway to address challenges and improve traceback investigations.

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