Star Tribune

May 29, 2009

A virtual who's who of food safety experts as well as Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar filled the University of Minnesota meeting area on Thursday. The topic: a soon-to-be introduced bill that could dramatically improve the nation's ability to detect foodborne disease outbreaks.

Klobuchar and the scientists made a strong case for reforms. But the most compelling testimony came afterward, from a guy who sat quietly amid the cameras and reporters. Jeff Almer of Savage had spent the time thinking of his mom, Shirley. Four days before Christmas, after surviving lung cancer surgery, the spirited 72-year-old grandmother from Perham, Minn., died needlessly during one of the nation's largest food recalls ever. The cause? Salmonella-tainted peanut butter.

"I used to think it was a lot safer. It's a real eye-opener when you start looking at cases and what states do,'' Almer said of the nation's foodborne surveillance system, one that he now realizes works well in some states but not others. "I hope things get changed so that we don't have other outbreaks and other heartaches like our family.''

Minnesota is one of those rare places where the system works extraordinarily well, rapidly identifying outbreaks and their sources. After a year in which two massive salmonella outbreaks linked to peanut butter and peppers sickened more than 1,000 people and cost the food industry billions of dollars, it's time to take what works in Minnesota and implement it elsewhere. That's at the heart of the reforms in Klobuchar's much-needed "Food Safety Rapid Response Act.''

"The problem is that the responsibility to investigate potential foodborne disease rests largely with local and state health departments, and there is a tremendous variation in terms of priority they give to this responsibility,'' said the Minnesota Democrat, who also introduced a bill earlier this year aimed at preventing contaminated food from getting into this system.

This bill, in contrast, targets what happens after foodborne disease occurs. It's in this situation where what's known as "the Minnesota model" is so valuable. Lives will be saved if scientists across the nation can replicate Minnesota scientists' stellar ability to rapidly spot patterns in data, the key to detecting outbreaks and their sources. Hallmarks of the Minnesota approach include a centralized role for the state health department, rapid testing of lab samples sent to it, teamwork with other state agencies and aggressive interviews of people who became ill.

Not surprisingly, it was Minnesota scientists who linked tainted peanut butter to the outbreak in which Almer's mother died. Yet salmonella cases had occurred around the country long before she became ill. With good reason, Almer believes his mother would still be here today if disease detectives elsewhere had investigated cases using the aggressive Minnesota model. Had the outbreak's source been found sooner, tubs of contaminated peanut butter may have been pulled off shelves before his mom ate the piece of peanut butter toast that took her life.

Implementing the Minnesota process at other public health agencies would involve changing long-held traditions and practices. That's never easy. It's also not clear if other hallmarks of the Minnesota approach -- its scientists' work ethic and esprit de corps -- can be replicated. Still, improvements are desperately needed, and this bill smartly builds on the best practices available. The reforms' estimated costs -- $20 million -- also pale compared with the cost of just one food recall.

Almer, who has testified before Congress about food safety, believes his mom would agree. "I kind of think she's looking down on us and is proud of what we're trying to accomplish.''