NEWS SCAN: FDA shutters peanut plant, food illness test drawbacks, WHO on novel coronavirus, Hong Kong respiratory illness

Nov 27, 2012

FDA bars operations at tainted peanut butter plant
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) yesterday suspended the food facility registration of Sunland Inc., which produced peanut butter linked to a Salmonella Bredeney outbreak, according to an FDA statement. The action was the agency's first use of new authorities granted under the Food Safety Modernization Act passed in January 2011. The law allows the FDA to bar companies from distributing their products if the agency believes the food poses a health threat. In a letter to Sunland's president, the FDA said it pulled the company's registration based on the company's testing records that showed Salmonella contamination in products from 11 different lots and an FDA inspection that found Salmonella in several environmental samples. The agency acknowledged Sunland's response to an inspection report it issued earlier this month but said the company omitted significant details about repairs and corrective actions it plans to take. The FDA concluded that until Sunland takes those steps, food processed or held by the company has a reasonable probability of causing illness. The outbreak linked to Sunland peanut products has caused 41 Salmonella infections in 20 states.
Nov 26 FDA letter
Nov 8 CDC outbreak update

New foodborne illness tests have benefits, drawbacks
New tests for detecting a range of foodborne pathogens are quick, less expensive, and can diagnose more infections but present a drawback for identifying and tracking foodborne illness outbreaks, Scientific American reported yesterday. The story quoted public health officials who said they are seeing a dropoff in the number of illness reports based on culture tests that allow laboratory experts to determine the specific bacterial strain and enter it into the PulseNet system, a national molecular subtyping network for identifying foodborne bacteria. Experts raised similar concerns in a 2011 CIDRAP News report that explored the increasing reliance on enzyme immunoassay (EIA) tests to detect Shiga toxin–producing Escherichia coli rather than growing the bacterium in culture. That report noted that the newer testing method can skew infection incidence reporting and that some states were addressing the information gap by asking providers to submit the E coli specimen or broth when the EIA test was positive. The Scientific American story flagged similar issues with Salmonella and Campylobacter testing and said the challenge for public health is to find new ways to monitor and address new outbreaks, which could entail even newer tests that help with investigating foodborne illness.
Nov 26 Scientific American report
Jul 21, 2011, CIDRAP News story "Changes in E coli testing pose surveillance challenges"

WHO comments on reasons for advice to broaden coronavirus testing
The World Health Organization (WHO) has filled in some details on the reasons for its recent advice to broaden testing for the novel coronavirus that has caused six illnesses and two deaths in recent months. In reporting the four latest cases last week, the WHO said the virus may not be confined to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the sources of the cases so far. The agency advised governments to consider testing people who have unexplained pneumonia even if they have no links to those two countries. The WHO's Anthony Mounts, MD, said there is no proof of cases elsewhere, but there is little reason to think the virus is restricted to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, according to a Canadian Press (CP) report. Mounts said the first two case-patients, who fell ill in June and September, had both been in Mecca, raising the possibility that the virus was found only there. But in the more recent cases, some patients had not been in Mecca before they got sick, and one Qatari patient had not traveled outside the country, Mounts said. The WHO believes that because people got sick in different places, it's unlikely that the risk is limited to the two countries, the story said. Mounts also said two of the more recent patients were not as sick as the first two, in that they didn't experience kidney failure, suggesting that there's a milder form of the disease.
Related Nov 26 CIDRAP News story

Hong Kong probes respiratory illness cluster at animal facility
Authorities in Hong Kong are investigating a cluster of respiratory infections in five men who work at an animal management center in Sheung Shui, according to a statement yesterday from Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection (CHP). The men, who range in age from 27 to 64, got sick from Nov 6 to Nov 24. All were hospitalized, some with pneumonia, and one—the 27-year-old—was discharged on Nov 22 in stable condition. So far diagnostic tests have not pinpointed the cause of the infection, and specimens from a 55-year-old man were negative for novel coronavirus. The CHP said monitoring of family contacts has turned up no other similar infections. It said that 16 seized parrots were being housed at the animal facility, and 10 of the birds were culled after 3 of them died. Animal health officials are monitoring the health of the other birds. The CHP said officials are exploring the possibility of psittacosis.
Nov 26 CHP statement

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