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PulseNet has greatly improved the ability of regulators and the food industry to solve those mysteries since it was launched in the mid-1990s, helping to spot major nationwide outbreaks in ground beef, spinach, eggs and cantaloupe in recent years. Just this fall, PulseNet matched 42 different salmonella illnesses in 20 different states that were eventually traced to a variety of Trader Joe’s peanut butter.

Food and Drug Administration officials who later visited the plant where the peanut butter was made found salmonella contamination all over the facility, with several of the plant samples matching the fingerprint of the salmonella that made people sick. That New Mexico-based company, Sunland Inc., recalled hundreds of products that were shipped to large retailers all over the country, including Target, Safeway and other large grocery chains.

The source of those illnesses probably would have remained a mystery without the national database, since there weren’t very many illnesses in any individual state. And these types of nationwide outbreaks are only increasing as global food companies ship farther and faster all the time.

To ensure that kind of crucial detective work isn’t lost, the CDC is asking the medical community to send samples to labs to be cultured even when they perform a new, non-culture test.

But it’s not clear who would pay for that extra step. Private labs only can perform the tests that a doctor orders, noted Dr. Jay M. Lieberman of Quest Diagnostics, one of the country’s largest testing labs.

A few first-generation non-culture tests are already available. When private labs in Wisconsin use them, they frequently ship leftover samples to the state lab, which grows the bacteria itself. But as more private labs switch over after the next-generation rapid tests arrive, the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene will be hard-pressed to keep up with that extra work before it can do its main job _ fingerprinting the bugs, said deputy director Dr. Dave Warshauer.

Stay tuned: Research is beginning to look for solutions that one day might allow rapid and in-depth looks at food poisoning causes in the same test.

“As molecular techniques evolve, you may be able to get the information you want from non-culture techniques,” Lieberman said.

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Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mcjalonick