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Providing Information and Guidance During a Foodborne Illness Outbreak Investigation

A safe food supply is critical to maintaining public health and public trust in producers. A significant proportion of foodborne illness outbreaks have been traced to fresh produce. Outbreaks exact a large toll in human suffering, expense of treatment, and loss of trust. As an example, cantaloupe grown in Indiana were implicated in an outbreak of foodborne illness in 2012. Based on available data, this outbreak reduced the size of the Indiana cantaloupe industry by 40%, compared to pre-outbreak production.

In August 2022, three southwestern Indiana farms were contacted by the FDA and CDC and informed that cantaloupe grown on their farms were implicated in multistate outbreaks of Salmonellosis. Production on these farms represented 30% of the entire multimillion dollar industry for Indiana. These farms operate individually, but collectively own and operate a cantaloupe packing facility and a marketing company. Cantaloupe growers/operators reached out to Extension immediately when contacted by the FDA. Purdue Extension personnel,, provided guidance and advice during this investigation. Extension staff sat in on calls between growers and regulatory agencies, advising growers in real time as the situation unfolded. As the investigation progressed, a team from FDA and IDOH visited the farms and shared packing facility. Purdue personnel provided information to growers to better understand the sample collection processes. Given the unique position of Purdue as a non-regulatory entity, Extension personnel were able to facilitate communication between all involved parties.

Extension assisted growers during the packing line investigation by collecting parallel environmental samples and facilitating transfer to a private laboratory for testing. Space was provided at the Purdue Extension Food Safety Training Hub for growers and investigators to gather and address investigation questions. Extension advised growers and provided explanations for legal obligations under the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule (21 CFR 112). Extension sat in on wrap-up calls with the investigative team. Due to the technical nature of the field, farm, and packing line sampling reports, Extension conducted a webinar dealing with whole genome sequencing and results interpretation for growers and provided information about traceback activities.

An early and important result was to assist growers in helping the FDA and CDC understand that harvest season had concluded and any implicated product was no longer in the supply chain. This prevented a recall and press release that could have greatly diminished the Indiana cantaloupe industry again. Farm inspection results indicated all farms were in compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule and that no deficiencies were found on any of the farms. FDA environmental samples collected from the farms, including production fields and the shared packing facility, failed to detect the outbreak strain of Salmonella, as did the parallel packing facility samples collected by Extension. Purdue Extension was there to support Indiana farms during a multistate Salmonellosis outbreak from cantaloupe and assisted them through the process, including facilitating communication with the federal agencies and conducting parallel analyses.
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