So the health departments starts to receive notices of food poisonings and initiates an investigation to determine how many cases, what food, and what has happened to cause the outbreak.
This has traditionally meant inspectors visiting suspected premises and doing much testing and reviewing of processes to try an determine if all the cases are linked.
A tool which is starting to make this process easier is a technique called Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS). This is a process which breaks down the cells of identified micro-organisms to determine their genome – DNA sequence.
By matching the genome from different micro-organisms which may have been involved in a food poisoning, it can be determined which microbe actually caused the outbreak. This then allows Inspectors to identify which food and location was involved.
Recently a technique has been developed at the University of Scotland which uses a method called the Minimal Multilocus Distance (MMD) method, which involves training a computer, with high accuracy, to identify the source of a food poisoning outbreak.
Although more research is required to develop the method to a point where it can be consistently used by health protection officials, like the Inspectors, it has successfully identified human cases to specific animals.
So bacteria like Campylobacter, Salmonella and other pathogens can potentially now be traced to a specific source by using specially trained computers.
The findings for this research were published in Scientific Reports and can be found at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-68740-6?proof=t
This sort of testing has the potential to greatly increase the likelihood of the source of food poisoning outbreaks being identified and as a result better actions can then be taken to ensure such outbreaks are reduced or prevented.