A serious outbreak of food poisoning, linked to Foster Farms chicken, that infected nearly 300 people is being confirmed today. But the government can’t do anything to stop it because most of the agencies that handle foodborne illnesses are hobbled by the ongoing Republican-led government shutdown.
The outbreak is caused by a strain of the salmonella virus known as Salmonella Heidelberg. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a press release yesterday saying that its Food Safety and Inspection Service “is unable to link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period. The outbreak is continuing.”
The Agriculture Department made out better than most in the shutdown, keeping 87 percent of its employees on the job — among those, most of the FSIS staff. The Agriculture Department conducts inspections at meat packing facilities and oversees about 15 percent of the U.S. food supply.
The Food and Drug Administration oversees the other 85 percent. That agency has been hit harder by the shutdown, sending home almost half of its employees.
According to a memo from the Department of Health and Human Services just prior to the shutdown last week:
“FDA will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities. FDA will also have to cease safety activities such as routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports, notification programs (e.g., food contact substances, infant formula), and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making.”
The Center For Disease Control and Prevention, the agency that tracks disease outbreaks across state lines, lost 68 percent of its staff to the shutdown. Scientists there have been locked out of their offices.
The Foster Farms outbreak has reportedly reached 18 states, but the CDC is now powerless to do anything about it.
The outbreak is believed to have originated in three Foster Farms plants in California — two in Fresno, one in Livingston. The USDA markings on possibly contaminated packages are P6137, P6137A and P7632.
At last report, 278 people had fallen ill from eating the contaminated chicken.
A Foster Farms spokesperson told the Associated Press that no recall of the tainted chicken was in the works and that the illnesses were caused by consumers who failed to cook the poultry correctly.
Sources: Wired Magazine (2), Associated Press