Tracking Down Food Illnesses

Outbreaks of food-borne illnesses will be easily tracked and handled in all 50 states by a new government computer network, Vice President Al Gore said Friday.

Gore said the computer network, dubbed PulseNet, would enable investigators to identify outbreaks five times faster than is possible now.

"At those times, every single second counts," Gore said on Friday. 'When Americans are about to bite into a tasty hampurger or a juicy strawberry, they really shouldn't have to worry and they shouldn't have to fear."

The move is the administration's latest effort to reduce the estimated 9,000 deaths and 33 million illnesses caused by food-borne pathogens each year.

Previous efforts include issuing new guidelines to farms and food processors on how to guard against contamination, and adopting new inspection techniques at meat and poultry plants.

The network will use the Internet to link together the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the Agriculture Department, four laboratories, and state health departments.

This will enable officials to quickly identify pathogens like E. coli in illness outbreaks, using the DNA of the bacteria found in the contaminated food and in patients who are suffering from gastric problems.

The DNA "fingerprint" of the pathogen then could be quickly transmitted around the country to determine how widespread the outbreak is, and what should be done to combat it, such as a product recall.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the current government FoodNet system only tracks such outbreaks in a few states and cannot cope with a large-scale outbreak.

FoodNet was used to identify the E. coli strain that sickened people in Colorado last year after they ate contaminated ground beef from Hudson Foods Co., resulting in a recall of 25 million pounds of meat. Yet the extent of the outbreak could not be tracked nationally.

"We will never really know how big that outbreak was," DeWaal said.

Agriculture Department statistics show that in 1997, the existing FoodNet network confirmed more than 8,000 human illnesses traced to seven food-borne pathogens, including E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter, and listeria. The new network, Gore said, will work even better.

Beginning Friday, PulseNet will link epidemiologists in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Texas, Washington, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The remaining states will be hooked up by 1999.

Gore said a new federal-state partnership also would mean better responses to the illness outbreaks.

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