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Posted by: OFT Food Safety & Injury Lawyers

When a food poisoning outbreak occurs, federal, state, and local health officials work to identify its source. Using various data sources, they can determine potential causes of the outbreak and help those affected.

If you suffer from a foodborne illness, knowing how these traceback investigations are conducted is essential. That way, you can understand who’s at fault in your case and how it could’ve happened. 

What is a Traceback Investigation?

Traceback investigations track down where the foodborne illness outbreak occurred and which strain is responsible for getting people sick.

These investigations rely on extensive data, accurate testing, and interviews with the affected population to succeed. Generally, the more significant the outbreak is, the easier it is for health officials to gather the information they need to draw conclusions and prevent it from happening again. 

What Types of Data Are Collected?

The CDC collects three types of data during an outbreak investigation:

  • Epidemiologic data
  • Traceback data
  • Food and environmental testing

These data types are like a three-legged stool; they work together to identify the cause of an outbreak. Many traceback investigations fall apart because not enough information was gathered at each phase, and health officials couldn’t confirm an outbreak’s source.

Here’s more on the three types of data: 

Epidemiologic Data

Epidemiologic data is arguably the most critical to collect. It sets the foundation for the rest of the investigation.

This type of data addresses the origin of where the outbreak began, the suspected food that caused people to get sick, and the possible sources of the contaminated food. For example, an E. coli outbreak might be traced back to a single town, restaurant, or food manufacturer.

Epidemiologic data also considers other factors that may have contributed to the food poisoning outbreak. These can include a restaurant staff’s hygiene and the time of year. Since most outbreaks occur in warmer months, the climate might have led to the food’s contamination rather than a facility’s cleanliness.

These studies constantly evolve to obtain information faster and give us insight into how our food becomes contaminated.

Traceback Data

Traceback data helps investigators zero in on the location of an outbreak. In this step, health officials track a food’s movement through the supply chain to pinpoint where it was contaminated.

Once health officials discover where in the supply chain the outbreak likely occurred, they can determine the factors that caused the germs to spread. For example, suppose an outbreak is traced back to a food manufacturer. In that case, investigators might analyze details about the facility, such as the building’s hygiene practices, the time of year, and more to identify what led to the outbreak. 

Food and Environmental Testing

Once the outbreak is traced to its source, health officials conduct food and environmental testing.

Food poisoning can be caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins, and other organisms. At this step in the investigation, officials can test the food and environment to identify the germ responsible for making people sick (the outbreak strain).

These tests cannot be done if there isn’t enough epidemiologic data available. After all, investigators must know which foods and where to test. After confirming the outbreak strain and source, steps are taken to prevent future cases.

Did You Suffer from Food Poisoning? Call Us Today

A successful traceback investigation is vital to your recovery. If health officials identify the cause of a food poisoning outbreak, you could hold the at-fault party accountable for your damages. The team at OFT Food Safety & Injury Lawyers has access to food safety experts that can help determine what caused your contaminated food.

If you suffered recently from food poisoning, you’re likely not alone. You could be among the many in need of compensation. Contact our office today at (888) 828-7087 to schedule your free consultation.

Notable Recoveries

$10 million

Seven infants were sickened after consuming a contaminated food product marketed to infants

$6.5 million

Verdict on behalf of a little boy who contracted a severe Salmonella infection from chicken

$7.55 million

Verdict on behalf of a little girl who contracted E. coli at a petting zoo

$2.25 million

E. coli infections contracted from a major fast food chain

$45 million

An over-the-counter medication caused severe kidney damage to multiple users

$3.4 million

A pregnant woman contracted a Listeria infection from contaminated fruit and passed the infection to her child

$3 million

Multistate Cyclospora outbreaks


A couple contracted Salmonella from a restaurant


A pedestrian was struck by a left-turning car, fracturing her tibia


A semi-truck rear-ended a motorcyclist causing a collapsed lung, rib fractures and road rash