(CN) - More than a quarter of a million cases of food poisoning are prevented annually thanks to a program begun 20 years ago that's about to get a technological overhaul, according to a study of the program released Tuesday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published its evaluation of the PulseNet program, which enables public health laboratories to share DNA tests on bacteria and accompanying ailments. The program has saved thousands of lives and prevents thousands of food-borne illness cases each year, according to results published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on Tuesday.
PulseNet is a network that lets health care officials compare DNA fingerprints for various food-borne bacteria, creating a database that can be referenced as burgeoning public health issues emerge.
Health care investigators use the network to review past illnesses or bacteria reports for sick people across the nation, which can identify trends and enable quicker food recalls or public health warnings.
Roughly 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths are attributed to contaminated food annually, according to the study. Researchers estimate that PulseNet prevents about 280,000 food-borne illnesses each year, roughly 266,000 of them from salmonella.
The system costs about $7 million to operate, and saves the United States about $500 million per year. This equates to about $70 in savings per dollar spent, the CDC said.
"PulseNet has provided an incredible return on investment with hundreds of thousands of people able to stay healthy as a result of this early-warning system," Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said in a statement.
Updates and improvements to the existing, cohesive approach could further improve the program.
While PulseNet's success has stemmed the spread of food-borne illnesses, improvements to the reporting process and streamlining of information could enable quicker recognition of problems and strategies for minimizing harm.
The program incorporates new kinds of tests used by doctors, known as culture-independent diagnostic tests. This allows health officials to analyze a specimen without culturing - the process of growing bacteria with nutrients in order to single them out and identify what species the bacteria is - saving valuable time in the process.
These tests can quickly identify the particular type of contamination and what illnesses may result. But it is does not enable health officials to identify the specific source, and creating a solution to this problem would help health officials to find the root cause of a food contamination and create more effective recalls.
Recent E. coli outbreaks at Chipotle restaurants - which have yet to be attributed to a particular ingredient - highlight the need for enhancements to PulseNet, researchers said.
The program has also uncovered a number of deficiencies in food-safety policy and regulations, including the packaging and handling of peanut butter, ground beef and poultry.
The research focused on E. coli, salmonella and listeria - a type of bacteria that can be fatal to children and the elderly that recently prompted a recall of sandwiches at 250 Starbucks locations across the nation.
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