During the recent government shutdown, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) warned the public of an outbreak of foodborne illness that had been 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, contribute to the development of foodborne illness if the outbreak spread any further—among consumers.
Because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is responsible for tracking the occurrence of foodborne disease and investigating outbreaks (which includes managing the DNA "fingerprinting" network for foodborne illness-causing germs in all states to detect outbreaks), the government shutdown affected the ability of the agency to protect the public.
After an article on Wired.com suggested that the shutdown left the CDC unable to conduct multi-state outbreak investigations, I tried to get in touch with the CDC. I wanted to ask about this latest outbreak and how the organization was (or wasn't) handling it. When I finally spoke with a CDC employee after several failed phone calls, a CDC employee provided me with a CDC email address to which I could send my questions. For the time being, he said, consumers with food safety questions or concerns about should contact their local and state health departments.
Earlier today—to my surprise and delight—the CDC emailed me. Finally back in action—along with the rest of the government—the agency responded to my concerns. As you'll see in their email to me (as below), the CDC is now working at full capacity, therefore able to better protect us, after facing several challenges during the last few weeks.
CDC's disease detectives for foodborne illness and outbreaks are happy to be at work in full force after the furlough. For example, in our CDC Reference Laboratory for Enteric (intestinal) Diseases, our nation's top laboratory that helps states identify foodborne germs that make people sick, all 80 staff are back on the job. During the furlough, a skeleton crew of four people was overseen by Dr. Collette Fitzgerald (seen in photo), a world-renowned microbiologist who has been at CDC for 15 years. Dr. Fitzgerald's three children (including twin boys), did not see much of her during the 16 day furlough. Instead, with her small team, she oversaw all the incoming samples of enteric pathogens, including those from the ongoing outbreak of Salmonella from Foster Farms, that proved to be resistant to several commonly prescribed antibiotics.
"We won't really know the full impact from the furlough for a couple of weeks, when the lab has caught up," say's Dr. Fitzgerald. "There was a gap in receiving and processing samples during this time. Analyzing samples can provide the first signal in determining if people and pathogens are linked during an outbreak. Last year, during this same time frame, we received almost 700 samples from states. During the furlough, we received about one-sixth of that number because we requested that states temporarily stop shipment. States held the samples, or we stored them if they were already shipped. Now that we are back, we are ramping up. But that takes time. When responding to outbreaks, timing is everything. We have no idea what we are missing right now; outbreaks could be missed."
How will this affect you as parents and consumers? "There was definitely a gap in our detection," says Dana Pitts, communications lead, "but the good thing is that we should have the ability to recreate most of what we missed using CDC's full force of laboratory and disease experts. They will live up to CDCs' reputation—working 24/7. It is important that not only in this outbreak, but every day, parents be especially careful preparing food for those at greatest risk for Salmonella food poisoning, including children under 5 years old, those in poor health, and older adults. We know that foodborne illness is common and can happen to anyone. But these groups of people have a much higher risk for infection from Salmonella."
The CDC also told me they just released a statement to update consumers about the Salmonella outbreak; as of October 18, 2013, 338 people with seven outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg have been reported from 20 states and Puerto Rico.
I don't know about you, but I'm certainly glad the furlough has ended, people can get back to work, and we can all rest a bit easier knowing that the government is doing what it can to protect the safety of our food supply to keep us healthy.
For more information about food-borne illness risk and what you can do to stay safe, check out the following resources:
Image of Dr. Collette Fitzgerald via the CDC.