Pathogen surveillance pioneer Patricia Griffin honored for work

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One thing that 30 years of public service has reinforced for Dr. Patricia Griffin is the basic scientific truth that states: You won’t find it if you don’t look for it.

Dr. Patricia Griffin accepted the annual achievement award Wednesday from the group STOP Foodborne Illness. This year the award was renamed in honor of food safety icon Dave Theno who died in June.

This afternoon, Griffin was recognized for “looking for it” for more than 30 years. In her acceptance remarks for the annual award from the non-profit group STOP Foodborne Illness, Griffin recalled the shock and outrage she felt in 1992 during the beginning of an E. coli outbreak investigation that would end up launching a sea change in food safety.

The pathogen was E. coli O157:H7 and most of the victims were children. In the course of contacting local public health offices during the investigation, Griffin heard an alarming answer more than once. When she asked whether local officials had seen any cases of infection by the bacterium, the response was as far out of line as an investigator can get.

“We don’t have any of that here,” was frequently the initial answer that lesser investigators might have seen as good news.

But Griffin asked the follow-up question: “Do you screen for it?”

“No.”

“How do you know you don’t have it if you don’t look for it,” was Griffin’s battle cry then and now.

Soon Griffin and public health officials from coast to coast were looking for it — E. coli O157:H7. The strain of the bug was infecting and killing children. Ultimately undercooked hamburgers from Jack in the Box restaurants were determined to be the cause.

During her work on the Jack in the Box outbreak investigation, Griffin met and worked with Dave Theno, the meat safety expert that Jack in the Box hired to solve the outbreak mystery and revise corporate policies to make sure another outbreak did not occur.

Honoring scientific resolve
Today, the award Griffin accepted from STOP Foodborne Illness was given under a new name. The honor is now known as the “Dave Theno” award in recognition of the groundbreaking work he did and the role he played in spurring government and industry to change regulations and policies.

Griffin saw surveillance as one of the heavy-lifting tools in the fight against foodborne illness outbreaks. If you didn’t look for them, how could you know whether they were happening?

She had joined the epidemiology staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1985, shortly after the agency had become aware of E. coli O157:H7.

In the years between 1985 and the Jack in the Box outbreak, Griffin worked to beef up surveillance of foodborne pathogens in hopes developing techniques to better detect and contain outbreaks.

Mike Taylor, a member of the STOP board and former deputy commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration, said Griffin’s diligence in the area of pathogen surveillance has spurred government and industry to make changes in the interest of public health.

But possibly more important, Taylor said, her innovative work has helped raise public awareness and provided invaluable data for other scientists.

In presenting the award, Deirdre Schlunegger, CEO of STOP Foodborne Illness, said the secret to Griffin’s success was simple.

“She has not lost the ‘why’ behind stopping foodborne illness,” Schlunegger said at the afternoon session of the annual Food Safety Consortium conference.

Diagram of a career in public health
Dr. Patricia M. Griffin is chief of the CDC’s Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch.

Griffin went to the CDC as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer and is now chief of the epidemiology branch that conducts surveillance and investigation of illnesses in the United States caused by enteric bacteria.

She is a leading expert on Shiga toxin-producing E. coli such as O157. She has overseen surveillance, analytic studies, and investigations of illnesses caused by Campylobacter, Clostridium botulinum, E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella, Vibrio, and other enteric bacteria.

Griffin oversaw most CDC-led investigations of outbreaks caused by bacterial enteric pathogens for 20 years. She oversaw creation of FoodNet (Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance System) and the human epidemiology component of NARMS (National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System) and has continued to shepherd their work.

She has been closely involved in developing models to estimate the true number of U.S. foodborne illnesses, and the percentage that can be attributed to various food categories.

Griffin attended medical school and trained in internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania; she trained in gastroenterology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and in epidemiology through CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service.

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