By Tarini Parti and Helena Bottemiller Evich
Now that nightmare has come true, though the federal agencies charged with arresting foodborne illnesses are scrambling to make do.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is operating with about one-third of its staff on the job during the shutdown, confirmed Tuesday that it has now brought back 30 furloughed employees in its foodborne division to help handle the outbreak, which has sickened 278 people in 18 states.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service — which is operating with 87 percent of its staff during the shutdown — issued a public health alert Monday evening saying that raw chicken products produced by three Foster Farms facilities in California are the likely source of the outbreak. However, no recall has been ordered because health officials say they don’t have enough information to name the specific products.
What’s most concerning about the outbreak is that it involves seven strains of Salmonella Heidelberg that are resistant to antibiotics typically used to treat the illness, Barbara Reynolds, spokeswoman for the agency, told POLITICO. Of those sickened, 76 people have been hospitalized — an usually high rate.
The outbreak is exactly what food safety advocates and several lawmakers earlier feared.
“I can’t tell you what might be missed while the CDC is shut down,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said in an ominous floor speech last week.
“Important programs like protecting public health are going by the wayside. Our food safety is in danger,” warned Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.).
With thousands of its employees furloughed, CDC’s ability to monitor and maintain its surveillance system for the 30 clusters of illnesses it was already tracking took a major hit. CDC had just one person instead of eight monitoring important pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria, as POLITICO previously reported.
Nancy Donley, founder of STOP Foodborne Illness, a food safety advocacy group, said the shutdown is the last thing the public health system needs, especially after agencies have already weathered significant spending cuts under the sequester. Overall, CDC was forced to cut $285 million of its fiscal year 2013 budget due to the sequester.
“Whenever you get in a situation where public health agencies, which are already stretched to begin with, have their funding restricted, things fall through the cracks,” said Donley.
The “perceived imminent threat” posed by the latest outbreak, however, has allowed CDC to bring its foodborne division back to normal capacity to keep an eye on the outbreak at hand as well as others that have not received attention during the shutdown, Reynolds said.
But there are still several unanswered questions that CDC and FSIS are investigating.
CDC had been tracking a similar Salmonella outbreak, also linked to Foster Farms’ raw chicken last year, but that outbreak had only one strain of Salmonella Heidelberg. Both agencies are now working with Foster Farms to determine what’s causing the outbreaks.
Ron Foster, president of Faster Farms, said in statement that “food safety was at the very heart” of his business.
“It is a continuous process of improvement. In addition to collaborating with FSIS and CDC, the company has retained national experts in epidemiology and food safety technology to assess current practices and identify opportunities for further improvement,” he said.
FSIS inspectors are still investigating exactly which Foster Farms products are linked to the outbreak. If they are able to get more information, the agency might issue a recall, said Dr. David Goldman, assistant administrator for FSIS’s Office of Public Health and Science.
Goldman said, unlike CDC, FSIS has been largely protected by the shutdown because its field inspectors and lab personnel were deemed essential. In response to the public health alert, it has put some of its employees on call and brought back at least one employee from the Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education.
“We’ve had no problem with the shutdown at all,” Goldman said. “Our inspection personnel are at work as well as our lab personnel, so none of that has been affected.”
But consumer safety advocates question if the lack of a recall is related to the shutdown.
“Although we appreciate that FSIS put out a public health alert, we still question why a recall hasn’t been issued?” Donley said. “We question whether this whole environment is challenging their ability to issue a recall.”
Caroline Smith DeWaal, the director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said it’s also a problem for consumers to not have access to updated government websites and public affairs staff during an outbreak.
Normally when a foodborne illness outbreak happens on this scale, CDC immediately launches an outbreak page with detailed information for consumers and the media, but one had not been created nearly 24 hours after FSIS’ public health alert announced the outbreak.
“This is a terrible time for government officials to be locked out of their offices and their laboratories and for government websites to be dark,” said Smith DeWaal.
Aside from the shutdown, consumer advocates are pointing to the fact that CSPI two years ago petitioned FSIS to declare certain antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella as adulterants, including Salmonella Heidelberg, which would make them illegal in meat and poultry.
Current policy requires poultry plants to have a less than a 10 percent rate of contamination for Salmonella, but the pathogen is not considered an adulterant. The USDA has not responded to that petition.
“These strains are simply too hot for consumers to handle in their kitchens,” Smith DeWaal said.