A newly published report shows proof that while changes in the tests that diagnose foodborne illness do help to identify infections faster, they could soon pose challenges to finding outbreaks and monitoring progress toward preventing foodborne disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published the findings in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Week Report.

Doctors are able to quickly diagnose foodborne infections by using culture-independent diagnostic tests (CIDT) that provide results in a matter of hours. Traditional culture methods require growing bacteria to pinpoint the cause of illness, which can take days for results to become available. Bacterial cultures are necessary, though, because doctors rely on them for detailed information to help find outbreaks, check for antibiotic resistance, and track foodborne illness trends.

In 2015 alone, the percentage of foodborne infections diagnosed only by CIDT was about double compared with the percentage in 2012-2014.

“Foodborne infections continue to be an important public health problem in the United States,” says Robert Tauxe, director of CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases. “We are working with partners to make sure we still get important information about harmful bacteria despite the increasing use of diagnostic tests that don’t require a culture.”

More frequent use of CIDT could negatively affect how health officials monitor and detect foodborne outbreaks. In the interim, the CDC is advising clinical laboratories to work with their local public health laboratories to ensure that cultures are done in instances where a CIDT shows that someone with a diarrheal illness has a bacterial infection. The agency’s long-term solution is to work with partners to develop advanced testing methods that--without culture--will give health care providers information to diagnose illness and also give the detailed information that public health officials need to detect and investigate outbreaks.

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