A Shutdown Outbreak?

The USDA reported last night that 278 people have fallen ill with salmonella, “likely” due to eating chicken from a California-based poultry firm. Maryn McKenna describes the outbreak as “the exact situation that CDC and other about-to-be-furloughed federal personnel warned about last week”:

As a reminder, a CDC staffer told me at the time: “I know that we will not be conducting multi-state outbreak investigations. States may continue to find outbreaks, but we won’t be doing the cross-state consultation and laboratory work to link outbreaks that might cross state borders.” That means that the lab work and molecular detection that can link far-apart cases and define the size and seriousness of outbreaks are not happening. At the CDC, which operates the national foodborne-detection services FoodNet and PulseNet, scientists couldn’t work on this if they wanted to; they have been locked out of their offices, lab and emails. (At a conference I attended last week, 10 percent of the speakers did not show up because they were CDC personnel and risked being fired if they traveled even voluntarily.)

While the USDA has yet to link the outbreak to a “specific production period,” Robert Gonzales notes that the shutdown has hampered the CDC’s ability to respond to such threats:

Foster Farms’ food safety chief Robert O’Connor insists that the USDA’s food inspection process “has not been affected by the recent government shutdown.” But according to the Associated Press, the CDC, which helps monitor multi-state outbreaks of food poisoning, “was working with a barebones staff because of the federal government shutdown, with all but two of the 80 staffers that normally analyze foodborne pathogens furloughed.” While the AP reports “it was not immediately clear whether the shortage affected the response to the Salmonella outbreak,” shutdown memos issued last week by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA both indicated staff relating to food inspection would be furloughed, further indicating that the government was ill-prepared to prevent and respond to a food-borne outbreak.