Salmonella and the shutdown: CDC furloughs harm public health

Foster Farms isn't recalling its contaminated chicken, but the Ralphs supermarket chain has pulled it off the shelves.
(FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP/Getty Images)

Food expert Marion Nestle asks whether government-shutdown-mandated furloughs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hampered its response to the salmonella outbreak at Foster Farms.

The bacteria traced to three of the firm’s California poultry plants have sickened 278 people nationwide, mostly in California. The Heidelberg strain of salmonella appears to be especially virulent. As my colleague David Pierson reported, 42% of victims have been hospitalized, double the normal rate. One big problem: Some of the salmonella strains appear to be resistant to antibiotics.

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued the initial Public Health Alert, monitoring food-borne illnesses is the job of the CDC. Thanks to the Republican shutdown, the agency was operating with a skeleton crew when the outbreak appeared.

At that level, an agency official told Food Safety News, monitoring multiple disease outbreaks became “untenable.” The CDC recalled 30 staff members Tuesday to bring its epidemiology and monitoring services back up to speed. It says now that the shutdown isn’t affecting the investigation, but there’s no question that it was late to the party.

As for Foster Farms, it says its chicken is safe with proper handling, and says its facilities got a clean bill of health from USDA as recently as Tuesday. That’s fascinating, since the day before, the USDA called the California plants so unsanitary they represent a “serious ongoing threat to public health.”


Foster Farms’ statement alludes, cryptically, to “the challenges of working with the federal government during the shutdown.” So far it’s not launching a recall, though the USDA is threatening to close the plants.

You want a real-time view of the effect of the GOP-led shutdown? Here it is. Nearly 300 people sickened, and the government is struggling to get off the blocks.