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Food Safety News

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Shutdown Not Impeding Salmonella Outbreak Investigation

If you haven’t already heard, there’s an ongoing Salmonella outbreak that has infected at least 278 people in 17 states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it’s linked to seven strains of Salmonella Heidelberg — some of which are antibiotic-resistant — that have contaminated chickens grown by West Coast poultry producer Foster Farms. To top it off, there’s a 42-percent hospitalization rate in these cases, double what’s usually associated with Salmonella, possibly because of the antibiotic resistance.

If there’s a silver lining to this story, it’s that the government shutdown is not impeding the investigation.

“We’ve been investigating this outbreak for some time,” Christopher Braden, CDC’s director of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases, told Food Safety News. Indeed, CDC informed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the first cases back in July, and FSIS sampled facilities in September.

“I would say we had accounted for investigating this outbreak,” Braden said. “Were there some things that maybe we missed or didn’t analyze that we would have normally? That’s likely true, but I don’t think it has affected what the source of the outbreak was.”

Braden said that the initial decision on whom to furlough was based on a short duration for the shutdown. When it became clear that the government was going to be shut down for an extended period of time, he said that handling all the data on multiple ongoing outbreaks and about 30 clusters of illnesses with a skeleton crew became “untenable.”

CDC decided to bring 30 employees back from furlough starting Tuesday — 10 of whom returned to work on foodborne illnesses, fully staffing the team working on the PulseNet database and epidemiologists on the data-exchange system.

As for FSIS, much of the staff was spared any furlough. “All of our front-line inspectors are exempted, so they’re on slaughter-processing lines in these facilities, including Foster Farms,” said Aaron Lavallee of the department’s Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education. Additionally, all three laboratories are still running, and all investigators are still out in the field.

“This is actually a testament to our ability, despite the impasse on the budget, to continue protecting consumers,” Lavallee said.

© Food Safety News
  • Susan Vaughn Grooters

    Where is the public affairs staff to communicate with concerned consumers? Have you tried calling the meat and poultry hotline? Where are the website updates? What happens with foodsafety.gov? As of yet nothing here http://www.cdc.gov/outbreaks/index.html or on CDC’s homepage… investigation sure, but protecting the public health takes a much larger team than inspectors and epidemiologists at USDA and CDC respectively. Those responsible for keeping the government shutdown, should know the damage they’re doing. Reporting that the investigation is successful in spite of the shut down, is a message missing the point.