Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta identified food preparation and handling practices, worker health policies and hand-washing practices among the underlying environmental factors that often are not reported during food-borne outbreaks.
Nearly half of all food-borne outbreaks reported each year -- 48 million are sickened and 3,000 die each year from food-borne illness -- are associated with restaurants or delis, the CDC said.
"Inspectors have not had a formal system to capture and report the underlying factors that likely contribute to food-borne outbreaks or a way to inform prevention strategies and implement routine corrective measures in restaurants, delis and schools to prevent future outbreaks," Carol Selman, head of the CDC's Environmental Health Specialists Network team at the National Center for Environmental Health, said in a statement.
Since 2000, the CDC has worked with states and local health departments to develop new surveillance tools. The result is the National Voluntary Environmental Assessment Information System, which collects information from state, tribal and local governments that inspect and regulate restaurants and other food venues such as banquet facilities, schools and other institutions.
The system provides a way to capture underlying environmental assessment data that describes what happened and how events most likely lead to a food-borne outbreak.
A free, interactive e-learning course was developed to help state and local health departments investigate food-borne illness outbreaks in restaurants and other food service venues as a member of a larger outbreak response team, identify an outbreak's environmental causes and recommend appropriate control measures, the CDC said.
The online course is also available to members of the food industry, educators and the public.
"We are taking a key step forward in capturing critical data that will allow us to assemble a big picture view of the environmental causes of foodborne outbreaks," Selman said.
The data surveillance system and online course will debut in early 2014.
Four articles published Monday in the Journal of Food Protection focus on steps that can be taken to prevent food-borne illness outbreaks related to ground beef, chicken, and leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach. The articles also focus on specific food safety practices, such as ill workers not working while they are sick, as a key prevention strategy.