Here's a Federal Program That Actually Does Prevent Foodborne Illnesses

This post originally appeared on and is reposted with permission.

new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine by a team of researchers, led by Professor Robert Scharff of Ohio State University, concludes that PulseNet, a 20-year-old partnership between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local health agencies, prevents more than 275,000 cases of foodborne illness each year. And it does so with a tiny budget.

I'm hard on the federal government when it wastes money on food-safety approaches that don't make our food safer. I've attacked often-senseless food-safety rules that have threatened to put small farmersartisanal cheesemakerslocal meat producers, and others out of business. I've criticized lapses and oversights in existing federal food-safety oversight.

But I've always held firm in stating that the federal government, along with states and local governments, has an important role to play in helping to ensure the safety of America's food supply.

It's not often that I get to point to a federally orchestrated food-safety program that's working. But I'm happy to report that's just what I get to do this week.

To learn more about PulseNet and the new study that details its efficacy, I spoke with Prof. Scharff by email this week. My questions and his responses are below.

A major 2008-2009 outbreak of Salmonella was dampened through PulseNet's use of bacterial fingerprinting. Photo Credit: Denise Chan via Flickr

Reason: What is PulseNet, and how does it work?

Robert Scharff: PulseNet is a network of state and federal laboratories that uses DNA fingerprinting of bacteria to find connections between seemingly isolated cases of foodborne illness. This makes it easier (more likely and faster) to detect outbreaks and track illnesses to their source.

Reason: Your new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine indicates that PulseNet prevents about 276,000 cases of foodborne illness every year. That's amazing. To put that in perspective, according to FDA estimates I've cited previously, the two key provisions of FSMA (pertaining to good manufacturing practices and fruits and vegetables) together would prevent—under a best-case scenario—as few as 488,500 cases of foodborne illness per year. PulseNet costs about $7 million per year. FSMA costs hundreds of millions of dollars annually. What does this say about where and how we allocate (or, perhaps, misallocate) our resources in this area?

RS: Markets work best when consumers have full information about the products they consume. There is too much emphasis in government on regulation (often promulgated with a weak scientific basis) and too little on helping market[s] work better through the provision of information.

Reason: Can you give one example of a notable success PulseNet achieved during its two decades of existence?

RS: The biggest success stories aren't largely known by the public because the source of an outbreak is identified before the outbreak becomes large enough to garner national media attention. That said, the large peanut butter outbreak in 2008-2009 that was detected by PulseNet likely would have led to many more illnesses had PulseNet not been in existence. The resulting bankruptcy of the Peanut Corporation of America and 28 year criminal sentence for the president acts as a strong deterrent to other food company leaders that may have otherwise considered the reckless behavior PCA engaged in.

Continue reading the full post on