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Investigations of food-borne outbreaks are frequently unsuccessful and new investigation methods should be welcomed. Describe the use of consumer purchase datasets in outbreak investigations and consider methodological and practical difficulties. We reviewed published papers describing the use of consumer purchase datasets, where electronic data on the foods that case-patients had purchased before onset of symptoms were obtained and analysed as part of outbreak investigations. For the period 2006–17, scientific articles were found describing 20 outbreak investigations. Most outbreaks involved salmonella or Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli and were performed in eight different countries. The consumer purchase datasets were most frequently used to generate hypotheses about the outbreak vehicle where case-interviews had not been fruitful. Secondly, they were used to aid trace-back investigation, where a vehicle was already suspected. A number of methodological as well as (in some countries) legal and practical impediments exist. Several of the outbreaks were unlikely to have been solved without the use of consumer purchase datasets. The method is potentially powerful and with future improved access to big data purchase information, may become a widely applicable tool for outbreak investigations, enabling investigators to quickly find hypotheses and at the same time estimate odds ratios or relative risks hereof. We suggest using the term ‘consumer purchase data’ to refer to the approach in the future.


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