The chances of detecting and stopping major outbreak of foodborne illness in middle America declined Friday due to Minnesota’s political shutdown of most state services — including Team Diarrhea and its celebrated team of epidemiologists.
Saddled with a $5 billion budget deficit and a legislative stalemate, the state temporarily laid off most state workers at midnight Thursday, forcing a shutdown of popular services ranging from childcare and licensing to the zoo and state parks.
But food safety advocates around the nation watched closely for what would happen to the team of epidemiologists widely considered the best in the nation at detecting and investigating outbreaks of E. coli, Salmonella and other food poisoning.
Working from offices next to the state capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota’s epidemiologists have been credited with detecting and tracing countless regional and national outbreaks — including the 2009 Salmonella outbreak eventually blamed on peanut paste.
Health authorities widely credit state laws that require prompt reporting of foodborne illness to the state office, and a team of university students known as “Team Diarrhea” who conduct telephone interviews with victims, helping investigators zero in on sources.
But all that was put on hold Friday, after budget negotiations broke down in the state legislature.
“We have about 189 of our 1,550 employees working on a limited number of critical services,” said department spokesman John Steiger. “Team D, per se, is not operating.”
Foodborne illness director Kirk Smith and two other department employees were maintaining a skeletal operation. “And there is a process in place whereby we can request additional staffing if we need to respond to a significant outbreak,” Steiger said.
Ben Miller, who works for the adjacent state Department of Agriculture, pointed out that he could help out in the event of an outbreak. Agriculture is the only state department whose budget passed the state Legislature, so it is fully staffed.
“Ten years ago, when I was a student, I worked on Team D, and I’ve already volunteered to dust off my interviewing skills,” Miller said. “There are a few of us here with that experience. So, if we’re needed, we’ll roll up our sleeves and pitch in.”