There's a Major Foodborne Illness Outbreak and the Government's Shut Down

image: BokChoi-Snowpea (CC), Flickr

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.”

(Updates to this post are at the bottom.)

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:

  • “P6137”
  • “P6137A”
  • “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.

More to come on this, I am sure.

Updates, Oct. 8:

Taylor Dobbs, an excellent reporter at Vermont Public Radio, has identified the 18 states where cases have been found: Arizona, Arkansas, Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin. Big thanks to him for sharing his results.

There were many other overnight and early-morning stories on this; I liked JoNel Aleccia‘s at NBC News.

Foster Farms, the company named yesterday by the USDA, has issued a press release. An interesting point, which I hope to follow up on: They refer in the first paragraph to the previous outbreak this summer as having affected their “Pacific Northwest operations earlier this year.” The alert yesterday referred to California operations. If that is not a miscommunication and there are in fact different plants involved, it raises the question of whether there is a common source for the various slaughterhouses/packing plants.

Food-safety attorney Bill Marler reminds me that two of the salmonella strains in the earlier outbreak this summer were antibiotic-resistant. The CDC’s original outbreak report describes them as “resistant to amoxicillin/clavulanic acid, ampicillin, cefoxitin, ceftiofur, and ceftriaxone. The two patients with resistant isolates both were aged <12 months and required hospitalization… Resistance to third-generation cephalosporins (e.g., ceftriaxone) is clinically important because extended-spectrum cephalosporins are commonly used for treatment of severe salmonellosis in children.”

If you’re curious why the CDC’s absence from this outbreak is so critical, this description of how the CDC works in multi-state outbreaks — by organizing the investigation and deploying lab resources that no other agency possesses — is helpful.

Finally, a number of commenters have asked why this outbreak is even an issue, assuming that people are only at risk if they undercook their chicken. That assumes that people are only becoming sick from their own actions and not, for instance, eating the chicken in someone else’s home or in a restaurant. It also fails to account for salmonella’s nimbleness at spreading off raw meat to other niches in professional or home kitchens — a cutting board, a counter, a towel, a sponge, the cook’s hands — and then from there in an undetected manner to other foods. And, finally, it fails to acknowledge that some members of the population — toddlers, elderly, people with immune systems weakened by various medical treatments — are more vulnerable than others. There’s no question people should behave self-protectively. But in our regulatory system, food safety is a shared responsibility, federal, commercial and individual — and it only works when every party in that chain works to the highest standard they can.


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