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PulseNet Redux

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 13, 2006

We ran it yesterday and it so upsets me that I am going to run it again. Did everybody notice that PulseNet, which is supposed to be protecting our food safety and food security, CLOSES ON THE WEEKEND?

Wisconsin public health officials knew they had a serious problem. They also had a responsibility to alert health officials in other states in case the outbreak was larger than they knew.

So on Friday, Sept. 8, microbiologist Linda Machmueller sat at her computer in the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene in Madison and posted a terse message on PulseNet, a federal Web board run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that allows scientists around the country to communicate about possible disease outbreaks.

“Wisconsin has a cluster of 8 E. coli O157:H7,” she typed, including seven local cases and one from Illinois. They all appeared to “match the pattern” for a strain of the organism that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had isolated earlier in hamburger patties from Texas. The microbiologist attached a copy of the deadly organism’s DNA fingerprint.

She had no idea what would happen next. “You never know when you post these things if it’s going to amount to anything,” she said.

The Wisconsin posting landed on PulseNet at 5:14 p.m. EDT, after everyone at the Web board’s Atlanta headquarters had gone home for the weekend. So it wasn’t until Monday, Sept. 11, that database manager Molly Joyner read the brief note, checked the DNA fingerprint and began trying to figure out what was going on.

pulseNet, as Wisconsin’s Davis puts it, is a little “like a dating service for bacteria.” It allows public health labs throughout the country to compare the organisms they’re seeing with those being found in other states.

The bacterium isolated in the Wisconsin outbreaks was not a highly unusual strain. Two or three cases a week are commonly posted on PulseNet.

But by the end of the day on Sept. 11, Joyner had discovered that nine states had posted single matching E. coli samples to PulseNet in the weeks leading up to the Wisconsin cluster, although it was unclear if they were connected. And Minnesota e-mailed that afternoon with yet another match.

You can read the whole article here.

I think the Centers for Disease Control needs to change this policy, immediately.

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