Data Coordination Aids Food Safety Efforts

July 15, 1996

As researchers and officials in government and industry develop and review options to control food safety risks, they often find out that the available data do not tell them all they need to know. An abundance of data exists, but there are some areas where little information is known. Even where available, making the data more accessible would aid efforts to use and disseminate the information.

Two researchers with the Food Safety Consortium have been working on a project to coordinate the data base and make it useful to people across several disciplines. Helen Jensen, a professor of economics at Iowa State University, and Tanya Roberts, a senior economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, have conferred extensively with research and policymaking personnel from the public and private sectors.

Jensen and Roberts found there are some basic problems to be addressed. For example, there is a lack of agreement on how many cases of human illness are caused by foodborne pathogens. Also, although reporting mechanisms exist to collect information on consumer illnesses and on farm management practices, there are no comparable mechanisms for collecting data at the processing and retailing levels of the food chain.

One result of their efforts was publication of a USDA report they edited entitled Tracking Foodborne Pathogens From Farm to Table, based on the proceedings of a conference in Washington last year. It is one of the first steps to bring various parties together to identify data needs and integrate available data.

"Data on contamination that exist at the farm, the processing and the distribution levels aren't very well coordinated," Jensen said of one particular problem. "For example, there may not be standard codes that allow us to take assignment by doctors or hospitals of diseases back to whether (a case) is of food origin or not. Because we don't have that, we don't really have very good information on food incidence. We can't trace disease cases to food sources."

Jean Buzby, an agricultural economist at the University of Kentucky, presented to the Washington conference a summary of current limitations in foodborne disease research: a lack of accurate data on the incidence and severity distribution of foodborne illness, a lack of medical cost data on foodborne illnesses for which no medical care was sought, a lack of morbidity data for foodborne illness episodes, and the underreporting of cases.

"Improving the completeness and quality of data sources will improve estimates of foodborne illnesses, as will developing new data sources and expanded electronic capabilities," Buzby said.

Jensen offered the scenario of someone who is diagnosed with a meat-related illness. "It's hard to trace back to farm or processing source, or mishandling food at home. So the integration of data is a problem. Some of it is that we just don't have the data. So we're hoping through this effort to work with agencies and other people who provide data to develop a mechanism for integrating the data better."

The information that is reported in the news media can have a great impact on determining research priorities, but access to relevant data can influence research differently. If an outbreak of a particular disease related to a food safety problem occurs and is widely reported, the public will be influenced in its demands for safer food products.

"All of a sudden we turn from any of the other pathogens we might have been looking at to E. coli because that's from where the contamination came," Jensen said. "So that news and the way it was presented may have a lot more influence on setting priorities for which pathogens we're looking at or where we're targeting regulations than any academic study that may have ranked them and said, 'Let's start here.'"

So would a better coordinated data base have a greater impact on setting public policy? Jensen believes it would. "There's a lot of interest at the federal government level on figuring out how to develop an integrated risk assessment system, how you compare your sources and what's the most effective way to reduce foodborne hazards. ... Government is recognizing the importance of economic information in setting priorities. You need data to do that."

A greater availability of better coordinated data would allow policymakers to analyze a situation. They would realize that a particular outbreak may be severe and become the object of major media attention at the moment, but they would also know that the outbreak was unusual compared to other problems and should be considered a lower priority when allocating research resources to fight pathogenic bacteria, Jensen said.

Researchers need information about specific pathogens so they can determine the most cost-effective strategies to control the pathogens in the specific foods they contaminate. Data, Jensen explained, are used to identify problems and to estimate the benefits and costs of solutions. So data should be collected first for pathogens that pose the greatest problems and where the payoffs from control are greatest. In defining solutions, researchers can determine what the most cost-effective methods are and realize cost savings by directing resources to developing the most efficient control methods.

The food production chain has several points from which data can assist policymakers. "People doing research at the farm level have learned a great deal about what's going on at the farm level but they haven't been pushed to evaluate the difference between what happens at the farm level and what happens at the processing level," Jensen said. "But as we identify the linkages among the problems, public policy is now focusing on trying to rank interventions or consider the choice of intervening at the processing level or putting more resources at the consumer level or going back to the farm level."

Researchers have been spending time since the Washington conference identifying resources that are most useful to include in pathogen databases. "We don't have a huge amount of resources to commit to generating new data but we do have resources that we hope can make data more available to researchers and public policy analysts," Jensen said.

"I think one of the developments over the last five years as we know more about food safety problems is the very nature of the integration, the fact that we need to know more about the way the system works at each point in the food chain and not just focus on the one area which tends to be along disciplinary lines," Jensen said. "That's why something like the Food Safety Consortium is useful because it's interdisciplinary and involves teams of people."

Food Safety Consortium

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