x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Food safety tracking system to quicken response to food poisoning

Tracking alert linking hospitals to food authority should cut response time from days to hours.

DUBAI // A new electronic tracking system will soon link health centres and food authorities in the capital so they can swing straight into action against outbreaks of food poisoning.

When the surveillance system operated by Health Authority - Abu Dhabi (Haad) spots an outbreak, it will immediately and automatically alert the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority.

The link, due to be running within the next month, should cut the response time from days to hours.

"Currently, we notify them through email or telephone," said Dr Farida Al Hosani, the manager of communicable diseases in public health and policies at Haad.

"The upcoming stage is linking them to the electronic system so they can have live information as soon as we receive it."

Dr Al Hosani said on the sidelines of the Dubai International Food Safety Conference yesterday that an alert would be issued each time a case was reported.

"Reporting used to be done manually and it would take days before we could get any information," she said. "Now, it will be done in the same day because it is immediate."

There are also moves for a GCC-wide early-warning system, which will warn each country when an outbreak is registered in any of the others, it was announced this week.

Haad is working on a central link between all of the capital's laboratories, to help identify patterns of disease that are now missed because of a lack of communication.

Haad reported 667 cases of food poisoning last year, up from 561 in 2010. But experts say the UAE has the potential to excel in food safety.

"Because it's so wealthy they could do the job better," said Dr Patrick Wall, a professor at the University College Dublin's School of Public Health and Population Science.

"Abu Dhabi has a model where it's going to monitor everything from farm to fork and nobody does that."

Inspectors will oversee the whole food chain to avoid contamination at any stage.

"You have problems in the kitchen and on farms so unless someone polices it, you'll always have difficulties," said Dr Wall. "Abu Dhabi is moving in the right direction."

Integrating the monitoring and response systems is crucial.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) operate a system called PulseNet, which centrally monitors pathogens based on their molecular signatures, akin to DNA fingerprinting.

A network of national and international laboratories, including one in Oman, "fingerprint" every strain of food-borne, disease-causing bacteria they find.

"The fingerprinting is done locally and then you can share it electronically," explains Dr Peter Gerner-Smidt, the head of PulseNet at the CDC in Atlanta.

When the system spots a cluster of similar cases, it is automatically reported to epidemiologists, the scientists who monitor and predict the spread of disease.

It highlighted 225 outbreaks in the US last year, up from 20 in 2005.

"It finds more clusters that were always there but never identified," said Dr Ian Williams, the head of outbreak response and prevention at CDC.

The system has found outbreaks stemming from contaminated peanut butter, tomatoes, peppers, celery, eggs, rock melons and turkeys.

And after tainted rock melons killed 30 people in Colorado last year in America's deadliest outbreak of food-borne disease, the CDC set about designing an integrated system that crossmatched human illnesses with food and animal data.

"We're trying to understand how much disease is among the animals and how much contamination is among the plants, and how that directly affects what goes on in humans," said Dr Williams.

"We're struggling to make the connection between what goes on in humans, in animals and in our production facility."

Finding that link, from human illness back to food, "could reduce outbreaks tremendously", Dr Williams said.

cmalek@thenational.ae