Utah gets a federal grant to form a ‘rapid response team’ of agencies that can react to an outbreak of foodborne illness

This 2004 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows Gram-negative Campylobacter fetus bacteria.

Whether it’s salmonella in milk or E.coli on lettuce, the next time there is a foodborne illness outbreak in Utah, the state will have a group of food safety superheroes ready to respond.

State officials this week announced the formation of a Rapid Response Team, made up of food safety experts from local, state and federal agencies. The group will be tasked with educating the public, training for emergencies and responding to foodborne illness outbreaks.

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food received a $1.3 million federal grant to create the food safety group, said Kerry Gibson, the department’s commissioner, in a news release. “This funding elevates our ability to more quickly protect the public from outbreaks that are either life-threatening or disruptive to Utah citizens,” Gibson said.

The Rapid Response Team should be ready to manage outbreaks and other situations as soon as 2020, added Travis Waller, UDAF’s regulatory director.

Utah is one of 25 states where a rapid response team has been created to respond to foodborne outbreak emergencies. Gibson said most states, including Utah, received program funding from the Food and Drug Administration. But some states have funded their efforts themselves.

Bacteria, viruses and parasites are the sources of many food poisoning cases, usually due to improper food handling.

Approximately 48 million Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die each year from food poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A rapid response team was in place in 2017 when two children eating at a restaurant in Pennsylvania were exposed to a toxic chemical from apple juice, the release notes. The children were admitted to the hospital and the state team was notified. The team alerted the public, closed the restaurant and conducted lab tests that determined the toxin to be sodium hydroxide, which can have severe effects on the human body.

There was a similar incident in 2014, when a Utah woman was critically injured when she drank toxic tea at a barbecue restaurant.

The five-year-grant requires the state organize an interagency rapid response drill to assess and improve Utah’s preparedness for an outbreak.

“Much of the Rapid Response Team’s efforts will include setting up two-way communication tools so that we can relay important information to the public," Waller said in the release, “but also connect with citizens, doctors and law enforcement more quickly about issues.”