Late-breaking news, and I’ll update as I find out more: While the government is shut down, with food-safety personnel and disease detectives sent home and forbidden to work, a major foodborne-illness outbreak has begun. This evening, the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture announced that “an estimated 278 illnesses … reported in 18 states” have been caused by chicken contaminated with Salmonella Heidelberg and possibly produced by the firm Foster Farms.
“FSIS is unable to link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period,” the agency said in an emailed alert. “The outbreak is continuing.”
This is 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.)
In case it seems like this is not a big deal (just 300 illnesses, just some raw chicken): foodborne illness can have lifelong consequences that range from arthritis to kidney trouble to heart disease. And: The number of illnesses that can be identified in any foodborne outbreak are almost always an under-estimate.
In its statement, FSIS said:
Raw products from the facilities in question bear one of the establishment numbers inside a USDA mark of inspection or elsewhere on the package:
- “P7632”The products were mainly distributed to retail outlets in California, Oregon and Washington State.
It is the second time this year that the firm at the center of this alert, Foster Farms, has been linked to a nationwide Salmonella outbreak. In July, according to the CDC, 134 people in 13 states were made ill by chicken linked to two Foster Farms slaughterhouses.