California Scientists Track Deadly Food Contaminations

Tracking foodborne illnesses is similar to a criminal investigation

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    NEWSLETTERS

    NBC Bay Area's Diane Dwyer goes inside labs to see how inspectors track down potentially deadly tainted food outbreaks. (Published Monday, Mar 24, 2014)

    From salmonella-tainted chicken, to salads contaminated with listeria, 48 million Americans get sick every year from foodborne illnesses.

    That's one in every six Americans.

    State and federal inspectors are on the frontlines, tracking down the source of these outbreaks, doing similar work to police detectives. In their labs, they collect evidence and interview key witnesses.

    Fifty-one-year-old Rick Schiller, of San Jose, knows all about food contamination. For him, it started last September with severe stomach pain, but quickly escalated to his leg turning purple and ballooning to twice its normal size.

    "I reached down and touched it, and it felt on fire," Schiller recalled. "I couldn’t believe this was part of my body. When I squeezed it, it was hard as a rock."

    Once hospitalized at Kaiser Santa Clara, a state lab test confirmed he had salmonella, a bacteria that kills 300 to 400 people every year.

    Scientists knew what made Schiller sick, but they still needed to figure out how he got salmonella.

    Investigators with the California Department of Public Health run three labs in the Bay Area, where they are trying to find the source of Schiller's illness, as well as tens of thousands of other cases reported every year in California.

    Dr. James Watt is the Chief of the Communicable Disease Division. He says time is of the essence. The sooner you get to the food source, and remove it, the fewer people get sick.

    "The point of contamination is really important, because the intervention you do will depend on where in the food chain the problem is," Watt said.

    Even though the American food supply is among the safest in the world, an estimated 3,000 people die each year of foodborne diseases, with the elderly and young most at risk. The most deadly are salmonella, toxoplasma, listeria, norovirus, and compo-vector.

    Doctors say, once they have isolated the bacteria, investigators go to work tracking it, similar to an episode of CSI.

    "When we find bacteria that we think are culprits of any particular foodborne outbreak of bacterial illness, then we find these bacteria, and then we want to fingerprint them," said, Dr. Vishnu Chaturvedi, Chief of Microbial Diseases Laboratory Branch.

    Scientists can track the genetic fingerprints and see if the same bacteria is showing up in other parts of the country and causing a full blown nationwide outbreak.

    "Improving the safety of food is the very core of our lives, and is important," Watt said.

    Using this approach, federal and state food investigators figured out salmonella-tainted chicken from three California Foster Farms plants sickened 400 people from 23 states, including Schiller.

    “I was shocked,” Schiller said.

    After food inspectors interviewed him, they tracked the tainted chicken to two packages of Fosters Farms chicken thighs, purchased two days before he got sick. His fiancee had cooked one package and froze the other. Lab workers tested the remaining meat and linked it to the nationwide outbreak.

    Six months after the diagnosis, Schiller still feels the effects.

    “The right arm is weaker than the left arm. I have echoing in my ear," Schiller said.

    Even with his ongoing health issues, he knows it could be worse.

    “I thank God I’m alive today, but someone of a weaker caliber may not have made it through this,” Schiller said.

    The best way to prevent food illnesses is to clean your food thoroughly, and with chicken, cook it to at least 165 degrees to kill any potential bacteria, like salmonella.

    Schiller says he follows that advice, and will now only eat chicken if it’s black on the outside.