Uncovering foodborne outbreaks using the latest technology

Thursday 21 May 15


Frank Møller Aarestrup
Professor, Head of Division
National Food Institute
+45 35 88 62 81

In the future it will be possible to uncover cases of foodborne disease and solve many more outbreaks through the use of whole genome sequencing, WGS, in which an organism’s entire DNA-profile is mapped out. The National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark, is promoting the creation of global databases for WGS results to facilitate intelligent use of this data.

Debate in the media around foodborne outbreaks often deteriorates to simplified descriptions of unsafe foods and nobody taking action. But that is not the case. In a 2014 Salmonella enteritidis outbreak fx that affected several European countries the source was identified through the use of whole genome sequencing, WGS, in which an organism’s entire DNA-profile is mapped out. This is just one example of the work to track down and prevent people from eating unsafe food.

Use of WGS in Danish labs 

In August 2014 a listeria outbreak hit headlines in Denmark. The outbreak had broken out in November 2013 and went on for months making at least 38 people sick and claiming 16 lives. The fact that this event was recognized as an outbreak stems partly from the fact that Danish labs used WGS technology to compare the listeria isolates from humans with bacterial strains isolated from food, thereby enabling linking the outbreak to a food source.

The use of WGS technology is making it possible for scientists to more quickly link many more cases of foodborne disease to an outbreak. The National Food Institute is working to make WGS data widely available through the creation of global databases for WGS results.

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The use of WGS in solving foodborne outbreaks is described in greater detail in two articles in Pan European Networks Science & Technology: Foodborne outbreaks, not the whole story and Microbiology 2.0. The article is written by Jørgen Schlundt, former director of the National Food Institute, now professor at DTU Management Engineering.

The National Food Institute is part of the Global Microbial Identifier network, which works to create a global system of DNA genome databases that can be used for microbial and infectious disease identification and diagnostics. The databases will enable the identification of relevant genes and the comparison of genomes to outbreaks and emerging pathogens.