Something you ate? Episode 1: Outbreak response – The big picture

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Outbreak Response
Transcript - Outbreak Response


Canada is fortunate to enjoy one of the safest food systems in the world. But even with world-class systems to keep our food safe, food-borne illness outbreaks happen from time to time. When they do, your governments work together to respond and to protect you from infection.

DR. David Butler-Jones, Chief Public Health Officer, Public Health Agency of Canada
Responding to a food-borne illness outbreak is a bit like trying to solve a puzzle, except you only have maybe one or two of the pieces, and you don't even know what the final picture is supposed to look like, so it's an incredible challenge for health professionals, people in the food safety industry, for public health officials and others to put all of those pieces together and eventually to solve the puzzle.

Outbreak investigations can be led by local, provincial, territorial or federal health authorities depending on how widespread the illnesses are.

For example, your local public health authority handles outbreaks confined to your community, while provincial or territorial health departments manage those that spread across multiple regions in the province or territory.

Provincial or territorial health authorities can ask the Public Health Agency of Canada for advice or additional experts to help with the investigation. The Agency also provides laboratory support to all regions of the country.

In the event of a national outbreak, the Public Health Agency leads the response and coordinates information sharing between the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada, and affected provinces and territories. The Food-borne Illness Outbreak Response Protocol outlines each organization's responsibilities and how they work together to respond to an outbreak.

To investigate, public health officials known as epidemiologists ask the people who got sick what they did, where they went and what they ate before they got ill.

These disease detectives analyse what they learn in their search for clues about what might be causing the illnesses. At the same time, lab experts test bacteria isolated from the people who got sick to find out if the bug causing their illnesses is the same one causing illness in other parts of Canada.

The lab experts also compare the results against bacteria found in contaminated foods to look for a match that might identify the source of the outbreak. Based on what the epidemiologists and lab experts learn from the investigation, public health authorities take action.

If the source of the outbreak is found in a food, Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency assess the risk and recall the product from store shelves, if necessary.

Public health authorities advise the public on who is most at risk and how everyone can protect themselves. It can take several weeks from the time a person gets sick to the time a food source is identified. Sometimes a source of the outbreak is never found. But in many cases the investigation does reveal the source. They can also help to find new pathogens, new food vehicles and unsuspected gaps in the food safety system.

For more information and updates, please visit our website at

A message from the Government of Canada.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has developed a series of four videos that help explain how we respond to large outbreaks of foodborne illness, or food poisoning as it is sometimes called. The first video provides an overview, the second and third explain how our investigation into the source of the illnesses unfolds and the fourth provides advice on how to reduce your risk of this type of illness. We're posting the videos individually over the coming weeks.

Anatomy of a Foodborne Illness Outbreak

Individual cases of foodborne illness are common in Canada. Outbreaks–two or more cases of illness that are linked by a common exposure within a specific time frame–are less common. When they occur, many food safety partners work together to try to control the spread of illness and find out the cause.

Did You Know

Who is responsible for responding to food safety issues and foodborne illness outbreaks? That responsibility is shared by all levels of government, regional public health units and the people involved in producing and selling food. Consumers also play a role.

In its section Food Safety Responsibilities, the Action on Weatherill Report Recommendations to Strengthen the Food Safety System: Final Report to Canadians, describes each partner's role in food safety and foodborne illness outbreaks.

The Report also provides details on how the Government of Canada has strengthened the food safety system since 2008.

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