​Winter 2017

Integrating PulseNet/FSIS datasets for faster removal of contaminated foods from grocery sh​elves

During a foodborne outbreak investigation, the clock is the greatest challenge for public health laboratories, epidemiologists, facility inspectors and others involved in the response. Every hour a contaminated food product remains on the market more people can become infected. These hazardous products could be pulled from market shelves more quickly if it were possible to access both regulatory and clinical data in real time.

And now it is. The PulseNet/FSIS web portal is a first-of-its-kind collaborative data sharing and integration platform. Housed at the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the new portal integrates PulseNet clinical data with FSIS’s regulatory data to identify trends, track PFGE pattern development, run historical analysis, view WGS data and pull current outbreak line lists for ongoing investigations.

Building the PulseNet/FSIS Web Portal 

Over the last four years, a multi-agency team led by the APHL contractor for PulseNet has worked to design, develop and refine this tool. The group – comprised of programmers from Carnegie Mellon University, database managers from CDC, state public health scientists, statistical analysts from USDA and IT staff from all quarters – faced multiple challenges: identifying the needs of users from both agencies, translating current functionality into the shared interface and expanding reporting tools to meet the needs of state public health laboratories. Then there was the ultimate challenge: integrating data maintained at different sites in different formats according to different standards. Perseverance, with a balance of structure and flexibility, was required to meet the needs of inspectors, epidemiologists, public health laboratories, federal partners and PulseNet Central while considering future needs. 

Putting the Portal to Use

The PulseNet/FSIS web portal facilitates collaboration at the earliest stages of cluster identification, generates leads for potential sources of contamination in the food supply and streamlines investigations overall. Datasets can be overlaid to render a geographic representation of data mapped by state, with clinical cases coded by color. Users can study the data, which is updated nightly, without the hindrance of large image files, limitations by time period or congested connections. In addition, all outbreak investigation partners with FSIS authentication can view the data in real time. Clinical cases can be compared against results from positive FSIS regulatory samples.

APHL has authored a user manual for the portal and will provide one-on-one or small group training for participating food safety specialists upon request. Contact Deborah Sheehan, APHL’s PulseNet contractor, for more information.

Moving Forward 

The success of the PulseNet/FSIS web portal has established a model for future interagency collaborations to maximize the value and usability of public health data. APHL appreciates the opportunity to coordinate this project, which will ensure the effective use of valuable data created by member laboratories.