Foodborne illnesses becoming more difficult to detect

New tests for common foodborne pathogens like Escherichia coli, Campylobacter and Salmonella could prevent public health officials from detecting multistate outbreaks.

Alicia Cronquist, an epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, found that multiple clinics in the state were switching from traditional laboratory tests to rapid non-culture tests. The new tests led to less information being shared with her department, including the DNA sequence of the illness, Scientific American reports.

The new tests provide quicker results to physicians and patients, are less expensive and can spot pathogens the culture-based tests do not diagnose. Without DNA fingerprinting, however, health officials do not always get the information they need to identify a source of contamination.

"These rapid tests put us back where we were when we didn't have the ability to do (DNA) fingerprinting," Timothy F. Jones, Tennessee's state epidemiologist, said, according to Scientific American.

John Besser, the deputy chief of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Enteric Diseases Laboratory Branch, said that the challenge is creating a test that provides the information needed without resorting to the slower and more expensive methods.

Besser said that while the new tests for foodborne pathogens may be better, the disruption of the public health system could result in more illnesses, Scientific American reports.

"(The new tests) could result in a lot more people getting sick," Besser said, according to Scientific American. "That is the unintended consequence."