The state of Minnesota remains in a contentious budget standoff that could have serious implications for the nation’s food safety system. Minnesota’s Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, have failed to agree on a budget, without agreement the state government will shut down July 1.
Why does Minnesota’s state budget matter to eaters across the country? Their state epidemiology program is widely considered one of the best, if not the best, in the country. Their “super sleuth” team of foodborne illness detectives — known affectionately as “Team D” — has solved countless outbreaks, no doubt saving lives each year.
A joint project of the Minnesota Department of Health and the University of Minnesota, Team D has been the shining example of an epi team that works — and works fast. In the event of a shutdown, it’s not entirely clear how Minnesota’s food safety team will be impacted. (Public health workers, like all Minnesota government employees, have received layoff notices.)
“The reality is that, because food products sold in the U.S. crisscross the country as they are made and packaged, there are few truly local outbreaks,” writes infectious disease expert, author and blogger Maryn McKenna at WIRED. “Many of them cross state borders. Some of them are national, even international. For many of them, Team D has been an extraordinary resource.”
“It would be a grave loss, if it were to go away,” said Mckenna. “E. coli in hazelnuts packaged in California? Salmonella-bearing red pepper in salami made in Rhode Island? More Salmonella in peanut butter from Georgia? Even more Salmonella in peppers from Mexico? Anthrax from downed cattle? Crypto from chicken salad? Solved by MNDoH, every one.”
John Stieger, communications director for the Minnesota Department of Health, told Food Safety News that Gov. Dayton’s recent petition with the courts requesting the state continue certain critical services during a shutdown could allow Team D to operate with limited staff.
The list of services the governor is seeking includes two areas: responding to public health emergencies, including disease outbreaks, and food inspection safety and security.
“It is important to point out two things: 1) these services (including Team D) would be carried out with limited staffing, and we won’t know for sure what services we are authorized to continue operating until the court issues its ruling, and we don’t know yet when that will be,” said Stieger in an email.
“Cutting staff and funding for this group not only hurts Minnesota, but also the rest of the country’s food safety battles as well,” said food safety attorney Bill Marler, of Marler Clark (publisher of Food Safety News) recently on his blog, adding that layoffs would be “penny wise and pound foolish.”
“The Minnesota Department of Health and Team Diarrhea are consistently at the forefront in detecting and solving outbreaks,” added Patti Waller, the lead epidemiologist at Marler Clark. “Without their leadership, the U.S. faces increased risks for large and prolonged foodborne illness outbreaks. It is critical that Minnesota public health remains fully funded and operational.”