The team will build probabilistic network models of the production, transportation and distribution of selected food products.
They will use data from federal and state health departments and industry sources, and derive algorithms to trace back to the sites where contamination is likely to have taken place.
The $200,000 award for the project is administered over two years, from 15 September through 14 September 2015.
It will develop a planning tool enabling public health and emergency preparedness officials to make informed, trace-back policy decisions.
The team will evaluate the utility of the tool against current and proposed methods used in outbreak investigations to determine cost-feasible recommendations for policy and practice.
The team is the only one of 11 selected to receive public health research awards, totaling $2.7m, which focuses on food.
Support is provided by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Dr Stan Finkelstein, Professor Richard Larson and ESD PhD candidate Abigail Horn will lead the research.
Larson said that if recent trends continue, such as large-scale production practices and distribution over ever-larger distances, the consequences of outbreaks will be even more dire.
“The food production and delivery system involves extensive national and international networks whose structure and flows are always changing and not well documented. Contamination can occur anywhere in the system, such as on a ‘source node’ farm,” said Larson.
“The issue is to identify and halt that source of contamination quickly, so as to minimize the number of consumers who may become ill due to the contamination. It’s a type of ‘detective search.’”
The awards are from the National Network of Public Health Institutes (NNPHI) and the National Coordinating Center for Public Health Services and Systems Research (NCC) at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health.
“In this era of health reform, it is imperative that we not forget that public health holds a key to improving the population’s health, a major tenant of Affordable Care Act,” said Douglas Scutchfield, MD, co-principal investigator of the NCC.
“These grants will help us use research to further the efforts to develop public health’s capacity to perform in this changing health care environment.”