How the Government Shutdown Could Hurt Families and How to Stay Safe

If you think the shutdown of the federal government won’t have a ripple affect on our health and well being, think again. For one, it might very well make it harder for us to protect ourselves and our kids from illness caused by contaminated food.

On October 7, 2013, The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a public health alert to warn of an outbreak of foodborne illness. According to the alert, an estimated 278 illnesses caused by strains of Salmonella Heidelberg have recently been reported in 18 states (primarily in California).

Although the alert indicates the FSIS can’t yet link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period, it says investigations conducted by local, state, and federal officials show that the likely source of the outbreak is chicken produced at Foster Farms. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state health departments are monitoring the outbreak while the FSIS continues its investigation, an article on Wired.com quotes a CDC staffer who said that while the federal government is shut down, the agency won’t be able to conduct multi-state outbreak investigations.

According to the CDC, an estimated 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases each year. While consuming undercooked ground beef, chicken, and eggs can contribute to outbreaks of foodborne illness, other foods including fruits and vegetables and can also become contaminated or harbor pathogens that lead to illness.

Although symptoms of foodborne illness vary depending on the cause, common symptoms that can be mild or serious and can last anywhere from a few hours to several days include vomiting, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, and chills. Young children are among the more vulnerable populations and are more likely to develop foodborne illnesses, experience dehydration or other severe complications, or even die from them.

Hopefully, the federal government will reopen soon so the workers who protect the safety of our food supply can help prevent a further spread of foodborne illnesses. In the meantime (and always), there are several measures we can take to protect ourselves and our children from foodborne illness. Here are four core practices recommended in the FightBac! program by the Partnership for Food Safety Education:

1. Clean –Wash hands and surfaces often. Simply washing your hands with soap and water in the time it takes to sing “happy birthday” can cut your risk of getting sick from food by 50%.

2. Separate—Don’t cross contaminate. Keep raw foods away from cooked foods and separate raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from other foods in your grocery cart and in your refrigerator.

3. Cook—Cook to proper temperatures. Using a meat thermometer—not eyeballing foods for doneness—is essential to make sure foods are cooked to safe internal temperatures.

4. Chill—Refrigerate promptly. Keep your refrigerator set to 40 degrees Farenheit or below and never let perishable foods sit out for more than 2 hours—or more than 1 hour outside when the temperature exceeds 90 degrees Farenheit.

To learn more, check out the Food Safe Families Campaign Toolkit or visit foodsafety.gov.

Image of mother washing kid’s hands via shutterstock.

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  1. [...] reported in 18 states (primarily California). As I wrote about the public health alert in a recent Scoop on Food post, it was clear that the government shutdown could potentially harm the health—in this case, [...]