Context Is Everything: Harmonization of Critical Food Microbiology Descriptors and Metadata for Improved Food Safety and Surveillance

Front Microbiol. 2017 Jun 26;8:1068. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2017.01068. eCollection 2017.


Globalization of food networks increases opportunities for the spread of foodborne pathogens beyond borders and jurisdictions. High resolution whole-genome sequencing (WGS) subtyping of pathogens promises to vastly improve our ability to track and control foodborne disease, but to do so it must be combined with epidemiological, clinical, laboratory and other health care data (called "contextual data") to be meaningfully interpreted for regulatory and health interventions, outbreak investigation, and risk assessment. However, current multi-jurisdictional pathogen surveillance and investigation efforts are complicated by time-consuming data re-entry, curation and integration of contextual information owing to a lack of interoperable standards and inconsistent reporting. A solution to these challenges is the use of 'ontologies' - hierarchies of well-defined and standardized vocabularies interconnected by logical relationships. Terms are specified by universal IDs enabling integration into highly regulated areas and multi-sector sharing (e.g., food and water microbiology with the veterinary sector). Institution-specific terms can be mapped to a given standard at different levels of granularity, maximizing comparability of contextual information according to jurisdictional policies. Fit-for-purpose ontologies provide contextual information with the auditability required for food safety laboratory accreditation. Our research efforts include the development of a Genomic Epidemiology Ontology (GenEpiO), and Food Ontology (FoodOn) that harmonize important laboratory, clinical and epidemiological data fields, as well as existing food resources. These efforts are supported by a global consortium of researchers and stakeholders worldwide. Since foodborne diseases do not respect international borders, uptake of such vocabularies will be crucial for multi-jurisdictional interpretation of WGS results and data sharing.

Keywords: contextual metadata; foodborne pathogen surveillance; genomic epidemiology; ontology; outbreak investigations.