Special Report: "Food Detectives" help find contaminated food - KTTC Rochester, Austin, Mason City News, Weather and Sports

Special Report: "Food Detectives" help find contaminated food

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (KTTC) -- Eating your favorite food, only to have it make you violently ill. No one wants this kind of misery but 1 in 6 Americans will experience this. You're about to meet some amazing people, Minnesota's "Food Detectives." They investigate where tainted food comes from to make sure you don't get sick again.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that each year in the U.S. 48-million people get sick from eating contaminated food, and 3,000 thousand people die from what they have eaten. Food safety is a very big deal.

Popular food items have been recalled in the last five years across the nation, from poultry products to peanut butter.

"An extremely large outbreak of salmonella infections due to peanut butter. There were over 700 confirmed infections in the country," said Kirk Smith, with the Minnesota Department of Health.

In St. Paul, in the heart of the state's capital complex, two departments have joined forces, to discover what's making people sick, when food contamination outbreaks do occur. It starts when a doctor sends a stool sample to the Minnesota Health Department.

"Our lab does DNA fingerprinting of every bacteria they get right away," explained Smith.

A small group of graduate students, known as Team D, work alongside epidemiologists to investigate outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. They up on cases across the state including E-Coli 157 and Salmonella.

"We start with a symptom history and just ask, did you have vomiting, diarrhea, just to characterize your illness and then we'd start into an exposure history that would capture many different places you could have come in contact with what made you sick," said Brittany VonBank, with Team D.

All of the data is recorded and analyzed to find a link between the cases. It's at this point that the Department of Agriculture sometimes steps in to help.

"If it deals with a product that is distributed or manufactured here in Minnesota, than we'll become involved in the investigation," explained Benjamin Miller, with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Researchers will go straight to a manufacturing plant

"What we're looking for is to see if the bacteria matches the human cases, if we can find that in the food or the processing environment in the plant," described Miller.

Minnesota's agriculture and health departments, along with Team D, are doing something right. In 2009, they were the first to crack the case of where a nationwide contamination of peanut butter originated in Georgia.

From time to time, the Department of Ag will sample "high risk" products, like produce or formerly recalled foods, at area markets to make sure there is no deadly bacteria.

The Department of Ag said it's up to manufacturers to make sure safeguards are in place at their plants. Is the food hot or cold enough, is there a risk of cross-contamination? Your life is at stake.

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