Food Safety Summit May 6-9, 2025
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Food Safety Summit

Environmental detective work can curb foodborne illness outbreaks

In foodborne illness outbreaks, it can take days to weeks before victims report symptoms or sources of illness are uncovered. By the time an investigation starts, the potentially contaminated food can be long gone. But the environment the food was prepared and served in can be stable and helpful in figuring out where an outbreak started and often the cause of the contamination. Certain pathogens, like salmonella, can linger in overlooked areas such as inside equipment or under tables. Food inspectors who know where to look can collect and test them.

Enter environmental sampling.

Not only can environmental sampling help identify sources of contamination, but it can also help retail food establishments improve processes such as sanitation.

There is an art to using environmental sampling as a tool for solving outbreaks at the retail food level.

The Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO) in conjunction with the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and several states including Tennessee, New York, Iowa, and California have pushed Environmental Sampling to the forefront with a series of trainings that allow its students to learn in a laboratory type environment.

“This training allows participants to learn where and how it is best to sample an environment,” says AFDO executive director Steven Mandernach, who also serves on the training team. “Even more important is trying it out – that means hands on learning to use the tools correctly for the most accurate and helpful results.”

“Environmental sampling has been used in food processing for years, but it’s relatively new to the retail world outbreak investigations. This training helps inspectors become better detectives,” says Mandernach.

The hands-on session does look a lot like a scene out of an episode of a detective show taking the participants through the entire process of an investigation culminating with a series of sampling activities. Environmental sampling might require crawling under restaurant equipment or taking apart appliances or serving stations to swab surfaces that could be hiding outbreak-causing clues. 

Trainings include practicing the techniques learned in the classroom sessions in several mock environments. Trainings use real world retail food environments.

Teams work in multiple environments to expand their experience They discuss the most likely locations for bacteria to hide while gloving up and swabbed the suspects with sponges and swabs. The samples are sealed into plastic bags and carefully labeled so clues are preserved for analysis.

These practical exercises are backed up by the why of all the activities. “If you know why, it’s so much easier to understand why sampling execution is important,” Mandernach adds.  

Students learn about good locations for sampling, what constitutes good sampling technique and the importance of documenting and labeling samples. They learn that putting on rubber gloves and preparing sample packets is not as easy one might think.


Session information during the Food Safety Summit:

Registration for this session is required. More information can be found at


  • Explain how environmental sampling supports activities such as environmental assessment and foodborne outbreak investigations.
  • Recognize environmental pathogen niches within retail food establishments via hygienic zoning concepts.
  • Demonstrate proper aseptic gloving and sampling techniques through hands-on activities with sampling tools on real life retail food establishment equipment.
  • Learn, practice and demonstrate environmental sampling concepts that illustrate the pathway of disease transmission from the environment to those who became ill, and ultimately advance prevention.

All day session – Registration required, includes lunch

Adam Kramer, Environmental Health Office, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Steven Mandernach, executive director, AFDO

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