Every year, thousands of people get sick and die thanks to food poisoning. According to data from the Independent newspaper in London, more than 420,000 die every year, just because of contaminants in food. That’s more than half the number killed on the roads.
With lawsuits for food poisoning on the rise, scientists are looking for ways to reduce the risk posed by the current food production system. Rather than going down the usual public health route, they’ve chosen to try out a new line of attack - using whole genome sequencing technology to trace outbreaks to their source.
One of the problems with controlling foodborne disease is finding out where it actually originated. Traditional investigations were long and drawn out, with investigators having to go to dozens of suppliers and carry out a range of expensive and time-consuming tests. Thanks to the inefficiency of gathering these data as well as the cost, the majority of food poisoning incidents are never fully investigated.
But now a team of scientists from the New South Wales area of Australia thinks it may have found a solution. Instead of using traditional methods which can take a long time, the team says that they can use whole genome sequencing to pinpoint the exact location of the outbreak, interrupting supply chains before they infect more people and cause economic upheaval.
The research is timely. According to the data, outbreaks of common foodborne illnesses are up more than 73 percent in some parts of the country. What’s needed is a more responsive system which can trace pathogens back to the source more quickly and easily.
The system has also proven its worth in identifying actual sources of infection, rather than the most likely. It had initially been believed that a sushi restaurant was the source of an outbreak in a shopping mall. However, when the researcher's inspected the genome of the bacteria more closely, they found that it had originated in a nearby chicken restaurant and that the sushi outfit was innocent. Thus, genome sequencing proved to be an essential way to protect the sushi restaurant from being falsely accused of having poor hygiene practices.
It’s going to take time, of course, for full genome sequencing to become a common part of all food poisoning investigations. But the team believes that it could be rolled out very quickly. The actual cost of sequencing the genome of bacteria is many orders of magnitude cheaper today than it was in the past. In fact, it’s now so cheap that the cost of sequencing is negligible compared to the full cost of a routine investigation.
Businesses also have an incentive to support the new methods because it gives them a chance to prove their innocence: something which they couldn’t do in the past.
It is hoped that the new technology will prevent the rise in salmonella poisoning currently afflicting much of the Western world. Being able to more rapidly detect the source of the outbreak will force those with unhygienic practices to mend their ways.