Oh good, there's a Salmonella outbreak while the government's shut down

With many of America's federally employed food-safety personnel on furlough (thanks, government shutdown), it's a good thing there isn't a major foodborne-illness outbreak unfolding across the country! Oh, wait.

Above: Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing Salmonella typhimurium. The strain implicated in the current outbreak is Salmonella Heidelberg, the nation's third most common strain of the Salmonella pathogen.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced late yesterday that an estimated 278 people across 18 states – predominantly in California – have recently been reported ill due to Salmonella poisoning. While the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has so far been "unable to link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period," initial investigations suggest "that consumption of Foster Farms brand chicken and other brand chicken produced at [three] Foster Farms plants [in California] are the likely source of this outbreak."

And that outbreak, the FSIS cautions, "is continuing." Foster Farms, for its part, has yet to issue a recall. "Products are safe to consume if properly handled and fully cooked," reads the press release issued by the company in response to yesterday's announcement. In that same press release, Foster Farms' food safety chief Robert O'Connor insists that the USDA's food inspection process "has not been affected by the recent government shutdown."

But according to the Associated Press, the CDC, which helps monitor 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." While the AP reports "it was not immediately clear whether the shortage affected the response to the Salmonella outbreak," shutdown memos issued last week by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA both indicated staff relating to food inspection would be furloughed, further indicating that the government was ill-prepared to prevent and respond to a foodborne outbreak.

Moreover, over on Wired's Superbug, Maryn McKenna points out that the outbreak is, in fact, the "exact situation" that the CDC warned about prior to last week's wholesale furloughing of government employees. "I know that we will not be conducting multi-state outbreak investigations," a CDC staffer told her in the lead-up to the shutdown. "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." McKenna continues:

That means that the lab work and molecular detection that can link far-apart cases and define the size and seriousness of outbreaks are not happening. At the CDC, which operates the national foodborne-detection services FoodNet and PulseNet, scientists couldn’t work on this if they wanted to; they have been locked out of their offices, lab and emails. (At a conference I attended last week, 10 percent of the speakers did not show up because they were CDC personnel and risked being fired if they traveled even voluntarily.)

The USDA has offered the following reminders on how to prepare chicken safely:

All poultry products should be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165° F as determined by a food thermometer. Using a food thermometer is the only way to know that food has reached a high enough temperature to destroy foodborne bacteria.

Consumption of food contaminated with Salmonella can cause salmonellosis, one of the most common bacterial foodborne illnesses. Salmonella infections can be life-threatening, especially to those with weak immune systems, such as infants, the elderly and persons with HIV infection or undergoing chemotherapy. The most common symptoms of salmonellosis are diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever within eight to 72 hours. Additional symptoms may be chills, headache, nausea and vomiting that can last up to seven days.

Consumers with food safety questions can "Ask Karen," the FSIS virtual representative available 24 hours a day at AskKaren.gov. The toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) is available in English and Spanish and can be reached from l0 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Eastern Time) Monday through Friday. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day.

According to the USDA's report, affected products were distributed primarily to retail outlets in California, Oregon and Washington State. The report also notes that raw products from the three Foster Farm plants in question bear one of the following identification codes on their packaging: P6137, P6137A, P7632. After a fair bit of searching, we were unable to come up with a list of the 18 states reportedly affected by the outbreak, though we'll update here when we learn more.

The outbreak has already outstripped another nationwide Salmonella outbreak (also linked to Foster Farms), which earlier this year affected an estimated 134 people across 13 states.

In the meantime, the CDC has partnered with state health departments to continue monitoring the outbreak while FSIS continues its investigation. More on this as it develops.