Tracking foodborne illness

I knew I’d contracted a foodborne illness when I couldn’t sleep because the stomach pain was so strong. I spent the next day drained and tired. I felt nauseous. My legs were cramping. My head hurt. My parents, with whom I’d eaten lunch the day before, were also sick with the same symptoms–though my dad said his kidneys were hurting him, not his legs. We’d all become sick from something we’d eaten. But what?

When investigating outbreaks of foodborne illness, health authorities look for the common food linking the unwell. In our case, there was only one common food that only the three of us ate: raw, baby spinach imported from the United States in a one kilogram plastic box my mom had bought at the supermarket. The packaging called it “prewashed and ready to eat.”

Since I learned about the Centre for Disease Control’s FoodNet, a database that allows health authorities to track outbreaks of foodborne illness, I knew that we should report our illness.  So I called up public health here in Toronto who referred me to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The CFIA assigned an investigator to our case and yesterday, a man came to the house to interview me and to collect the box of spinach in case they wanted to test it for a pathogen (he later called to tell me he wouldn’t be testing the box because it had been opened and could now have new and unrelated pathogens).

He explained to me that he would visit the store where my mom bought the spinach and then contact the importer and the grower and whoever else was involved in the supply chain. But he said he didn’t think we’d ever be able to determine where the spinach had been contaminated–if it was the spinach that made us sick. He said we were the only people to have complained about baby spinach and that it is hard to track the root cause of foodborne illness. When I asked if he’d be reporting it to the CDC’s FoodNet, he said it was the public health authorities, not the CFIA who do that.

The problem with a long distance supply chain is that we could be part of a geographically dispersed outbreak and not know it. Because that same spinach has been shipped across the continent, hundreds of people could be getting ill, in different cities. Because FoodNet aggregates information from across the continent, they are able to spot outbreaks that wouldn’t have been detected before the system was invented–this was the case with the salmonella-contaminated peanut butter that sickened hundreds in 2009. But if they don’t have information about who is getting sick from baby spinach, they won’t be able to detect a pattern.

Too bad the CFIA isn’t reporting our illness to them. I’d hate for more people to get sick from baby spinach.