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Something you ate?
Episode 3: Tales from the lab

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White coats; cool work.

The Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) is Canada's main infectious disease public health laboratory. The NML is home to a reference library of pathogens. When other labs are seeking information about a certain pathogen they’ve detected, the NML can tell those labs when and where the pathogen has been detected before and other important information that can help in an illness investigation.

Did You Know

Pathogen: a microorganism that’s capable of producing a disease. Bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses such as Salmonella or Listeria are examples of pathogens.

What is PulseNet Canada?

The NML also coordinates PulseNet Canada, which is an electronic network that ties together the public health laboratories of all provinces (plus some federal laboratories) by linking their computers and databases. This national network is dedicated to tracking the DNA fingerprints of all cases of E. coli and most cases of Salmonella.

Why are the PulseNet Canada national databases important?

A critical component in the investigation of human foodborne outbreaks is the DNA “fingerprinting” of the pathogens suspected of being involved. These fingerprints are obtained through a process called pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE). To learn more about this process, watch the video, above.

Once these DNA fingerprints are generated, they are entered into an electronic database at the NML that is available on line to participants. This way, fingerprints can be compared rapidly and outbreaks of disease can be detected faster than using traditional laboratory surveillance. Detecting disease faster means we can respond more quickly and reduce the outbreak’s impact on public health.

PulseNet Canada fingerprints all cases of E. coli and most cases of Salmonella as part of its work and, when needed, can fingerprint Listeria monocytogenes, Shigella, Campylobacter and Vibrio.

How PulseNet Canada makes a difference

  • detects clusters of cases with matching DNA “fingerprints”
  • aids early identification and investigation of foodborne disease outbreaks
  • assists in investigations to differentiate an outbreak from sporadic cases and to identify the source of outbreaks
  • provides a rapid communications platform and links public health laboratories across the nation

For more information about PulseNet Canada, go to PulseNet - Overview.

More food safety information

Visit the Government of Canada food safety portalExternal Link to stay on top of food safety.

Health Canada has food safety information aimed at specific groups that are at greater risk for serious illness, including a chart that lists foods to avoid and safer alternatives to those foods.

Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety EducationExternal Link provides information about food safety in the home.

Action on Weatherill Report Recommendations to Strengthen the Food Safety System: Final Report to CanadiansExternal Link describes changes made to the food safety system since 2008.

These links provide more detailed information about the tools we use to help us in our food safety work.