Goodbye, Team D? When One State's Cuts Hurt Everyone

Here’s a little tip that will make you feel like a public-health insider. The next time you read any news related to foodborne illness in the United States, look for this word:


The chances are good that you’ll find it, probably buried deep in the footnotes. That’s not because Minnesota has particularly unhealthy food. (Disregard those 47 things on a stick served at the State Fair.) Instead, it’s because Minnesota has excellent food detectives.

Largely thanks to its Scandinavian sense of social responsibility — Minneapolis is still Scandinavian enough that the cashiers in my downtown grocery store spoke Swedish to the older customers — Minnesota has always been willing to support a crack state department of public health.

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.

Minnesota’s excellence in foodborne illness isn’t due only to the skills of its epidemiologists. People think of disease detection as a mysterious and elegant act of deduction, Sherlock Holmes with a pipette instead of a pipe. Creativity and imagination do count, but what counts just as much is the brute, boring work of gathering data: getting out of the office, talking to sick people, looking in their refrigerators, digging through their garbage — and then filling out forms, plugging them into software, and crunching the numbers until an association falls out.

Minnesota can afford to perform those boots-on-the-ground, butts-in-the-chair tasks more often than most other states not just because it historically has been generous, but because at some time in the past, it was smart. First, it passed a law that requires physicians to submit stool cultures from any patient with a suspected intestinal illness, and then also required the state lab to fingerprint the bacteria for identification. The crucial third step was to guarantee a force of low-cost personnel who close the circle by interviewing the confirmed victims.

The state found them at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, which every year supplies a group of graduate students to perform the  painstaking interviews that underlie MNDoH’s unusually good analyses. The students are affectionately called “Team D” — as in, “diarrhea”.

(Here’s Scientific American‘s look at Team D from 2009, in the midst of the peanut-butter outbreak, as well as one from USA Today.)

So when you look in the footnotes of an outbreak, and you see a reference to Minnesota, it’s Team D’s work you’re looking at. But here’s the catch: If you feel like seeking out that little insider thrill, you had better do it quickly — because it looks as though MNDoH is about to lose the funding that lets it put those extra boots on the street.

Like most states, Minnesota is in a budget crisis. The state governor, Mark Dayton, is locked in a staring match with the Republican legislative majority. And the result, according to letters sent to 36,000 state employees last Friday (and received, according to sources, at MNDoH and Team D), is a looming layoff and government shutdown, beginning July 1.

(If you want to follow this in detail, the best coverage is by Jeff Severns Guntzel at MinnPost.)

Now, if the likely Minnesota shutdown affected only Minnesota, it might be acceptable to take it lightly. (What’s a little bad raw milk, between friends?) But the reality is that, because food products sold in the US crisscross the country as they are made and packaged, there are few truly local outbreaks. 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.

Here’s a video that University of Minnesota made a few years ago about Team D:


(H/t Bill Marler for inspiring this post.)

Update, July 2: And, in fact, the Minnesota government did shut down, and Team D has been dismantled. Food Safety News has the story: 189 “critical” employees at MNDoH, out of 1,550, have been allowed to remain at work. Team D are not among them.

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