There's a salmonella outbreak affecting hundreds of people in multiple states right now, all while food safety inspection crews and disease-tracking scientists sit at home, furloughed because of the government shutdown. This is one shutdown nightmare scenario that people were worried about even before the government pulled the plug on itself.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service has announced that an estimated 278 people across 18 states, mostly in California, have been reported ill because of a salmonella outbreak linked to chicken from three plants owned by the California-based Forster Farms. "The outbreak is continuing," FSIS said yesterday, surely in a calm, soothing tone. Foster Farms was quick to note there's no recall in place and that their chicken should be fine if cooked properly. The outbreak was caused by traces of Salmonella Heidelberg, "the third most common strain of the Salmonella pathogen," according to Reuters, found in the chicken. If you do undercook your bird, you're looking at potentially spending the next seven days with diarrhea, abdominal cramps and a fever, with some chills, headaches and nausea thrown in for good measure. Always take your chicken well done, kids.
FSIS is working with the Centers for Disease Control, along with state and local officials, to track the outbreak as best they can. But the whole effort would be so much easier if the CDC wasn't also crippled by the government shutdown:
The Centers for Disease Control, which monitors the microbes that signal multi-state outbreaks of food poisoning, was working with a barebones staff because of the federal government shutdown, with all but two of the 80 staffers that normally analyze foodborne pathogens furloughed. It was not immediately clear whether the shortage affected the response to the salmonella outbreak.
Wired's Maryn McKenna, who sounding the alarms, confirmed with the CDC prior to the shutdown that this kind of multi-state investigation wouldn't happen while Congress was busy fighting over lego blocks:
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 said, there's nothing concrete connecting the announcement of the outbreak directly to the turmoil in Washington. After all, the outbreak first began in March and the Department of Agriculture was notified for the first time in July. However, it does raise questions about how the government will be expected to respond should the outbreak get worse, or if another one arises. It also reminds people of the dangers they face when no one inspects poultry farms. The timing is certainly interesting.
"The illnesses were linked to Foster Farms brand chicken through epidemiologic, laboratory and traceback investigations conducted by local, state and federal officials," Reuters reports. A USDA spokesperson said the outbreak's source was difficult to pinpoint.