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PulseNet - Overview

Foodborne infections are an increasing global problem. The trade of raw and processed food across borders along with international travel makes it possible for human foodborne infections to originate in a different region than where the illness is observed.

PulseNet plays a vital role in the surveillance and investigation of foodborne illness outbreaks that were previously difficult to detect. Finding similar patterns through PulseNet, scientists can determine whether an outbreak is occurring, even if the affected persons are geographically far apart. Through PulseNet, outbreaks and their causes can be identified in a matter of hours rather than days.

What is the PulseNet Canada Network?

PulseNet Canada is a virtual electronic network which ties the public health laboratories of all provinces (plus some federal laboratories) together 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.

The network is coordinated by the Public Health Agency of Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) located in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The PulseNet Canada team at NML houses and manages the national databases.

Why are the PulseNet Canada national databases important?

A critical component in the investigation of human foodborne outbreaks is the DNA "fingerprinting" of the causative organisms. These fingerprints are the DNA profiles of a human foodborne pathogen obtained by DNA characterization methods such as pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE).

Once these PFGE patterns are generated, they are entered into an electronic database of DNA fingerprints at the NML, which are available on-line to participants. This enables the rapid comparison of patterns allowing for the detection of geographically dispersed outbreaks of foodborne bacterial disease at an earlier stage compared to traditional laboratory surveillance. This allows for more timely interventions to outbreaks and reduced impact on public health.


  • detect clusters of cases with matching DNA “fingerprints” (PFGE patterns)
  • facilitate early identification and investigation of foodborne disease outbreaks
  • assist in epidemiological investigations to differentiate outbreak from sporadic cases and the identify the source of outbreaks
  • Provide a rapid communications platform and link public health laboratories across the nation

Why was it developed?

PulseNet was first developed in the United State in response to a large outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in 1993. During the outbreak, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, Atlanta, Georgia) performed DNA "fingerprinting" by PFGE and determined that the strain of E. coli found in patients had the same PFGE pattern as the strain found in hamburger patties served at a large chain of regional fast food restaurants. Prompt recognition of this outbreak led to the creation of PulseNet in the US.

PulseNet Canada was developed in 2000 to create a similar system for Canadians as well as to harmonize with PulseNet USA External Link. Currently, the Canadian network includes the public health laboratories of all ten provinces plus two federal laboratories (the Public Health Agency of Canada's Laboratory for Foodborne Zoonoses and Health Canada's Bureau of Microbial Hazards).

Contact PulseNet Canada:
Phone: +1 (204) 789-2000
1015 Arlington Street
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada R3E 3R2