Experts Cite Lack of Resources for Public Health Laboratories as Impediment to Response in Foodborne Outbreaks

A lack of resources at state and local public health laboratories slows response to foodborne outbreaks, according to experts at a national meeting of food safety professionals. Participants in a panel at the International Association for Food Protection identified adequate laboratory staffing and provision of testing materials as critical to rapid response in a hypothetical multi-state outbreak of E. coli O111.

This statement will come as no revelation to those in public health. Disease control measures are based on a definitive laboratory-confirmed diagnosis. If you don’t have the test results, you can’t track down the pathogen that’s contaminated the food in your community. It’s that simple.

But this simple message seems to be lost on the funders of the governmental laboratories that conduct testing for E. coli O111 and other foodborne diseases. Laboratories continue to reel from cuts in state and local budgets. Yes, dedicated staff will work long hours during a crisis—as they did during the Salmonella outbreak in peanut products and the novel Influenza A/H1N1 outbreak—but this only goes so far. In a prolonged outbreak, staff has to be rotated or the quality of test results will be compromised. You just can’t make two people out of one, no matter how hard you try.

The same principle applies to lab instrumentation and supplies. Too often the assumption seems to be that lab testing is like cooking: if you have more specimens, you just put more pots on the stove. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. Laboratory “through-put”—the number of specimens that a laboratory can test in a day—depends upon the capacity of its instrumentation: If a lab has bigger and faster equipment, it can test more specimens faster. If it doesn’t, then laboratory diagnosis, and response time, will lag. And, of course, no testing can be conducted without test kits, reagents and other essential supplies. But with recent budget cuts, inventories are low, and resources to purchase additional supplies limited.

One wonders what will happen in the event of a sustained, foodborne disease outbreak – or the next wave of novel H1N1.

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