A Salmonella outbreak linked to a California poultry producer has sickened approximately 278 people in 18 states, health officials say. As of Tuesday morning, no recall had been issued.
Raw chicken products from Foster Farms plants have been identified as the likely source of this outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has so far been unable to identify the specific product or production period, but raw products from the potentially affected facilities bear one of the following numbers on the packaging: P6137, P6137A, P7632. These product numbers were mainly distributed to retail outlets in California, Oregon and Washington state.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is partnering with state health departments to monitor the outbreak while FSIS continues its investigation, but due to the government shutdown, current information may not be available on the agencies' websites.
"While the company, FSIS and CDC continue to investigate the issue, Foster Farms has instituted a number of additional food safety practices, processes and technology throughout company facilities that have already proven effective in controlling Salmonella in its Pacific Northwest operations earlier this year," Foster Farms said in a statement on its website.
The CDC first alerted FSIS to a growing number of Salmonella cases on July 1, USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee told CNN. At the time, 18 people had been sickened in four states, and Foster Farms was a possible link between the patients. USDA investigators began "site sampling," or testing Foster Farms facilities on September 9, and concluded their analysis of the majority of the samples collected on October 7.
"The partial government shutdown did not affect the investigation or communication with the public," Lavallee said.
The Salmonella outbreak comes one week after CDC Director Tom Frieden tweeted: "CDC had to furlough 8,754 people. They protected you yesterday, can't tomorrow. Microbes/other treats didn't shut down. We are less safe."
That raises the question: With government agencies like the CDC on furlough due to the partial government shutdown, is our food supply safe?
The shutdown notice issued by the USDA indicates the the FSIS will continue to inspect birds and animals intended for use as food both before and after slaughter, supervise the further processing of meat and poultry products, ensure that meat, poultry and egg products are safe and also prevent the sale of adulterated meat or poultry products. Despite furloughing 1,218 employees, the USDA says no meat and poultry inspectors have been put on leave.
But future outbreak investigations could be affected by the government shutdown if it continues much longer, some experts say.
"The CDC is the central coordination point and often the leader of the investigation, and the state health departments all collaborate under the umbrella of CDC guidance," says Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. "The CDC invariably is the conductor of the investigative orchestra."
CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds said, “We had about 10 people in the division. Now we have almost the full complement of 30 who were working on PulseNet and epidemiological surveillance.”
“[The] Foodborne [Division] has brought back a number of people to work on this and other clusters of outbreaks,” Reynolds said.
Along with USDA, the CDC believes it has identified what caused the illness, “But the more information we have, the stronger the evidence that we’ve found the source of the outbreak. There’s still some information to be collected and analyzed. All that information helps us determine the timing: how this began, what it began with,” said Reynolds.
State labs are able to do specimen collection and typing but at CDC, Reynolds said the data collection, analysis and input process is more involved. Some of this can be done through email or even by hand, but to get a full sense of it, it needs to be put into the CDC system.
Reynolds added that because of the shutdown, “It’s fair to say there was a delay in the exchange of information. It slowed us down.”
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 (1-888-674-6854) is available in English and Spanish and can be reached from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET on weekdays. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day. Consumers with concerns about Foster Farms products should call the company at 1-800-338-8051.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit in order to ensure that harmful bacteria is killed off. The reading should be taken from the thickest part of the flesh, not touching a bone.
Washing poultry before cooking it is not recommended. Bacteria in raw meat and poultry juices can be spread to other foods, utensils, and surfaces. Cooking (baking, broiling, boiling, and grilling) to the right temperature kills the bacteria, so washing food is not necessary.
The CDC reports that people in a normal state of health who ingest Salmonella-tainted food may experience diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps, which typically begin within 12 to 72 hours. This may be accompanied by vomiting, chills, headache and muscle pains. These symptoms may last about four to seven days, and then go away without specific treatment, but left unchecked, Salmonella infection may spread to the bloodstream and beyond, and may cause death if the person is not treated promptly with antibiotics.
Children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune symptoms should practice extreme caution, as salmonellosis may lead to severe illness or even death.
About 48 million people contract some form of food poisoning each year, according to the CDC.
Salmonella was the top cause of foodborne illness, according to the CDC's 2012 report card on food poisoning. However, the overall incidence of Salmonella was unchanged from the 2006-08 data, the agency said. The report card is based on reports from 10 U.S. regions, representing about 15% of the country.