Team Diarrhea: A model for food detectives around the country

5:43 AM, May 20, 2010   |    comments
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- After Minnesota played a huge role in solving two of the nation's major salmonella outbreaks, some federal lawmakers want to duplicate the state's approach to handing food-borne illnesses.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is co-sponsoring legislation that would create four or five centers of excellence around the country to investigate suspected food safety problems, like salmonella and E. coli.

The centers would be modeled after Minnesota, which requires doctors to report all suspected cases of food-borne illness to the state Department of Health.  Each confirmed case is quickly investigated by University of Minnesota graduate students, who are known as "Team Diarrhea" or "Team D."  They call the patients and ask a series of questions about their symptoms and the food eaten before getting sick.

"We're talking to someone fairly quickly after their illness so they'll have better recall," said epidemiologist Stephanie Meyer, who co-leads Team D.  "We're also getting the details that we need to do the best kind of follow-up."

Their investigative work last year helped solve a major peanut butter salmonella outbreak, which killed nine people nationwide, including three from Minnesota.

When cases first arrived in Minnesota, Team D immediately started investigating and noticed all of the cases had one thing in common: peanut butter. 

They also noticed cases were popping up in long-term care facilities, so the Minnesota Department of Agriculture started looking at invoices to trace the source of the peanut butter.  The evidence pointed to King Nut peanut butter, produced by Peanut Corporation of America in Georgia.  Investigators tested a large tub of the product and found salmonella.

"We call it the smoking tub," said Heidi Kassenborg, director of dairy and food inspections at the agriculture department.  "It was contaminated, so we really needed to pull the product at that time."

In 2008, Minnesota also figured out that jalapeno peppers, not tomatoes, were to blame for another major salmonella outbreak, which sickened hundreds around the country.

"While we're proud of what our team does, it seems ridiculous that people have to die in Minnesota before it gets solved," Klobuchar said.

In most states right now, local health departments are responsible for looking into probable cases and don't always have the time or resources to quickly investigate.  Klobuchar thinks the country needs regional centers, modeled after Minnesota, to investigate cases quickly and effectively.

"What's unique about Minnesota is they work like a team and really treat it as a mystery and try to solve it right away," Klobuchar said.

The legislation is supported by Jeff Almer, whose mother, Shirley, who was one of three Minnesotans who died during the peanut butter salmonella outbreak in late 2008.  She had just successfully battled a brain tumor, her second battle with cancer, when a urinary tract infection forced her to move into a long-term care facility in Brainerd.  She was about to leave the facility, just in time for Christmas, when she developed breathing problems.  A day later, relatives watched her pass away.

"It's the most difficult thing I've ever had to do," Jeff Almer said.

They initially thought she died from pneumonia or a blood infection, but a few weeks later, they learned it was salmonella.  Her case helped Team Diarrhea track down the outbreak's source.

"People are going to get sick, it's still going to happen," he said.  "But I would like to see when it does happen, it gets traced quickly."

Almer also supports a larger bill -- the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act -- which would make a series of changes to make America's food system safer.  The bill would require more inspections and give the FDA more authority for mandatory recalls. 

The U.S. Senate is expected to take up the Modernization Act, along with Klobuchar's legislation, after it finishes Wall Street reform.

(Copyright 2010 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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