Hypothesis Generation During Foodborne-Illness Outbreak Investigations

Am J Epidemiol. 2021 Oct 1;190(10):2188-2197. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwab118.


Hypothesis generation is a critical, but challenging, step in a foodborne outbreak investigation. The pathogens that contaminate food have many diverse reservoirs, resulting in seemingly limitless potential vehicles. Identifying a vehicle is particularly challenging for clusters detected through national pathogen-specific surveillance, because cases can be geographically dispersed and lack an obvious epidemiologic link. Moreover, state and local health departments could have limited resources to dedicate to cluster and outbreak investigations. These challenges underscore the importance of hypothesis generation during an outbreak investigation. In this review, we present a framework for hypothesis generation focusing on 3 primary sources of information, typically used in combination: 1) known sources of the pathogen causing illness; 2) person, place, and time characteristics of cases associated with the outbreak (descriptive data); and 3) case exposure assessment. Hypothesis generation can narrow the list of potential food vehicles and focus subsequent epidemiologic, laboratory, environmental, and traceback efforts, ensuring that time and resources are used more efficiently and increasing the likelihood of rapidly and conclusively implicating the contaminated food vehicle.

Keywords: education; foodborne illnesses; infectious disease outbreaks; interviews; public health practice; public health professional; telephone.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Disease Outbreaks*
  • Disease Reservoirs*
  • Epidemiological Monitoring*
  • Foodborne Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Humans
  • Public Health Surveillance / methods*