Ensuring the safety of our Nation's food supply is a top priority of Federal, state, and local governments. Globalization of our food sources, emerging pathogens, and increased public awareness pose significant challenges to our nation's food safety agencies. To address these challenges and assure food safety for all Americans, epidemiology, regulatory, and laboratory officials from agriculture and health departments in all 50 states met in Kansas City in September 1998. Representatives from FDA, CDC, USDA, and the state and local officials discussed ways to improve coordination and communication among public health and food regulatory officials. Attendees at this meeting constructed a vision for a successful national food safety system that identified current obstacles and promoted uniformity between Federal, state and local officials.
As a follow-up to this meeting, FDA partnered with CDC, USDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to support five workgroups in an activity collectively known as the National Food Safety System (NFSS) Project. The main objective of the NFSS project is to promote an integrated food safety system. Following a December 1998 meeting in Baltimore, the NFSS Information Sharing and Data Collection Workgroup and the Laboratory Operations and Coordination Workgroup began leading the effort to develop and implement a laboratory data sharing pilot project. In February 1999, the Laboratory Operations and Coordination Workgroup presented a vision for the E. coli O157:H7 pilot project in which local, state and Federal agencies would work as an integrated food safety system. For this pilot project, the Workgroup devised laboratory selection criteria to ensure participation by willing, committed laboratories with experience and capability in E. coli O157:H7 analyses.
In September 1999, the eight laboratories in the pilot agreed to work toward the following project goals:
- to develop national standards to produce reliable data for analysis of E. coli O157:H7
- to encourage the development of laboratory accreditation with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Standard 17025 to demonstrate that laboratories have a quality system, are technically competent, and are able to generate technically valid results
- to effectively demonstrate electronic data exchange between Federal, state, and local laboratories.
A major obstacle to the third goal of the pilot was the simple fact that no electronic data exchange system existed for all of the government laboratories to use to facilitate consumer protection. To exchange information between laboratories, the agencies relied on phone, fax, and e-mail - means of communication that limit our ability to rapidly identify and report food-borne pathogens to the appropriate government authorities.
The Laboratory Operations and Coordination Workgroup created a steering committee composed of FDA, USDA, CDC and representatives from the pilot laboratories to guide the pilot project. Through the guidance of the eLEXNET Steering Committee, eLEXNET was released in September 2000 as a proof-of-concept application to pilot laboratories: FDA, USDA, and six state and local food safety laboratories. The eLEXNET E. coli O157:H7 pilot successfully demonstrated that food safety laboratories based in different government agencies could agree to share a core set of food sample and E. coli O157:H7 test result data through a secure, internet-based information network.
In April 2001, eLEXNET expanded to include new pathogens and new laboratory partners. In its current release, eLEXNET captures data on E. coli O157:H7 and four additional microorganisms (Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, Campylobacter jejuni, and E. coli) and provides a component that plots food samples on a map based on collection location. The eLEXNET partnership grew in 2001 to include the Department of Defense and several state laboratories.
eLEXNET continues to draw interest and momentum from food safety agencies. Since eLEXNET began collecting data in September 2000, 250+ laboratories from three Federal agencies (DoD, FDA, and USDA) and 50 states have joined the laboratory partnership. Of these, 51 laboratories have begun submitting data via the automated data exchange program.
Current plans for the system include extending participation to health and agriculture laboratories in all U. S. states and territories.
eLEXNET collects food safety information from other Federal agencies and in the future, from international regulatory laboratories, beginning with those in countries exporting products to the United States. The Canada-United States-Mexico Compliance Information Group (CUMCIG), for example, has already expressed interest in joining the laboratory partnership.
Federal, State and Local laboratories have agreed to join and large number of them have been participating in eLEXNET by submitting their food sample data