Unsafe Foods Team Visits the Department of Health

The Unsafe Foods team began week 4 with a field trip to the Washington State Department of Health’s Division of Disease Control & Health Statistics. We met with state epidemiologists who gave us insight into their process for monitoring foodborne illness outbreaks and recommending that food products be recalled.

Determining the source of a foodborne illness outbreak is a difficult process, in part because most people who get food poisoning do not seek medical care. In cases when a person does visit a doctor, the doctor may or may not order testing to diagnose the patient. If the testing reveals certain pathogens, such as Salmonella, the laboratory must notify the local health jurisdiction, which then conducts interviews with the patient to find out everything they have eaten. The local health jurisdiction also takes the samples of the pathogen from the lab and analyzes them to see if the strain matches other patients who have previously become sick. This process may be repeated many times for many patients before the source of the outbreak is clear and a recall can proceed.

Outbreak and recall of Salmonella from imported cucumbers
Outbreak and recall of Salmonella Poona from imported cucumbers. Source: CDC.

Hearing from the Department of Health helped us better understand the recall process and put our project in context. We presented our project to them as well, and we had a fruitful discussion about some possible next steps.

This week we have also made great progress combining our disparate data sources into a PostgreSQL database. Thanks to Cynthia’s database expertise, we are well on our way to having a unified database we can use to make connections between online product reviews and product recalls.

Database schema
Database schema