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CDC calls back experts on foodborne illnesses

Nearly a dozen experts on foodborne illnesses who were furloughed because of the government shutdown have been called back to work, in part to help with an ongoing salmonella outbreak that has sickened nearly 300 people, including some who have been hospitalized with difficult-to-treat infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that it had called back several data analysts and epidemiologists whose jobs are to track down and respond to foodborne illnesses across the country.

“Now that we’re into our second week, we have to consider the possibility of this being a longer-term shutdown. We’re reevaluating some of the roles,” said CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds, noting that about 9,000 of the agency’s 13,000 workers remain furloughed. “It’s come to a head in our foodborne [illness] division. We were down to a skeleton crew.”

That skeleton crew of about 10 people had forced the agency to reduce the number of bacteria strains it was monitoring across the country and left it struggling to update its PulseNet database, a centralized system that helps officials identify and locate the source of outbreaks. Reynolds said workers were trying to exchange information and leads with state health departments and other federal officials through a laborious process of phone calls and e-mails, rather than the streamlined centralized database.

The CDC’s move came on the heels of a safety alert issued Monday by the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, warning of the growing number of illnesses caused by strains of Salmonella Heidelberg, which have been associated with raw chicken products produced by California-based Foster Farms.

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The poultry products mostly were distributed to retail stores in California, Oregon and Washington state, but the 278 illnesses reported so far span 18 states, the agency said. The FSIS has been unable to link the sicknesses to a specific production period or product but said the troubled meat would carry one of three numbers on the packaging: P6137, P6137A or P7632.

Reynolds said a particularly troubling aspect of the outbreak helped prompt the decision to call back the furloughed investigators: Of the 183 victims the agency has gathered information about, 42 percent had been hospitalized as a result of their illness. Some are suffering from infections that are showing resistance to common antibiotic treatments.

“It’s a higher number of hospitalizations than we would expect to see in a typical salmonella outbreak,” Reynolds said. “That’s concerning.”

Officials at the Agriculture Department and the CDC on Tuesday said they would continue working together to try to pinpoint the cause and breadth of the outbreak.

“This is still an ongoing investigation. There is still more work to be done,” Reynolds said. “Every piece of information brings us closer to answers.”

Consumer activists pointed to the outbreak as a tangible example of the harm caused by the shutdown.

“The number of people we know to be ill is just the tip of the iceberg,” Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a statement Tuesday. “This outbreak shows that this is a terrible time for government public health officials to be locked out of their offices and labs, and for government Web sites to go dark.”

Foster Farms posted a statement on its Web site saying it is working with the USDA and the CDC to deal with the salmonella reportedly linked to raw chicken products coming from three of its California facilities. The company has not issued a formal recall, and wrote that its products “are safe to consume if properly handled and fully cooked.”

“We deeply regret any foodborne illness that may be associated with any of our products,” Foster Farms President Ron Foster said in the statement. “Food safety is at the very heart of our business. It is a continuous process of improvement.”

Foodborne illnesses aren’t the only type of outbreaks that hamstrung federal agencies are trying to keep a handle on these days. Tuesday afternoon, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it also was working with the CDC to investigate the growing number of reports of acute, non-viral hepatitis in Hawaii, potentially linked to a dietary supplement product. Of 29 cases reported so far, 11 people had been hospitalized, and one person had died.

Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on food and drug issues.
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