State and local public health departments report hundreds of foodborne illness outbreaks each year to CDC and are primarily responsible for investigations of these outbreaks. Typically, investigations involve epidemiology, laboratory, and environmental health components. Health departments voluntarily report epidemiologic and laboratory data from their foodborne illness outbreak investigations to CDC through the Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System (FDOSS); however, minimal environmental health data from outbreak investigations are reported to FDOSS.
In 2014, CDC launched the National Environmental Assessment Reporting System (NEARS) to complement FDOSS surveillance and to use these data to enhance prevention efforts. State and local health departments voluntarily report data from their foodborne illness outbreak investigations of retail food establishments. These data include characteristics of foodborne illness outbreaks (e.g., agent), characteristics of establishments with outbreaks (e.g., number of meals served daily), food safety policies and practices of these establishments (e.g., glove use policies), and characteristics of outbreak investigations (e.g., timeliness of investigation activities). NEARS is the only available data source that includes characteristics of retail establishments with foodborne illness outbreaks.
During 2014–2016, a total of 16 state and local public health departments reported data to NEARS on 404 foodborne illness outbreaks at retail establishments. The majority of outbreaks with a suspected or confirmed agent were caused by norovirus (61.1%). The majority of outbreaks with identified contributing factors had at least one factor associated with food contamination by a worker who was ill or infectious (58.6%). Almost half (47.4%) of establishments with outbreaks had a written policy excluding ill workers from handling food or working. Approximately one third (27.7%) had a written disposable glove use policy. Paid sick leave was available for at least one worker in 38.3% of establishments. For most establishments with outbreaks (68.7%), environmental health investigators initiated their component of the investigation soon after learning about the outbreak (i.e., the same day) and completed their component in one or two visits to the establishment (75.0%). However, in certain instances, contacting the establishment and completing the environmental health component of the investigation occurred much later (>8 days).