The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Agriculture are the primary government agencies in a position to investigate multi-state outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. But sixty-eight per cent of the C.D.C.’s staff of thirteen thousand and forty-five per cent of the F.D.A.’s staff of roughly fifteen thousand have been furloughed. Only two of the C.D.C.’s eighty staff members working on foodborne disease remained at work after the shutdown began last week; thirty more have since returned to work because of the Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak. The F.D.A., meanwhile, is unable to fully conduct routine inspections of food facilities in the U.S. or abroad, prompting early scares that mass quantities of imported seafood were going uninspected. (“Don’t eat the shrimp!” may be one of the shutdown’s catchier, if offbeat, slogans.)
The current outbreak has been linked to raw chicken produced by Foster Farms at three facilities in California; the same strain of salmonella was also seen in outbreaks in 2004, 2012, and earlier this year. Foster Farms, astoundingly, has not issued a recall of the contaminated chicken, which was produced in its facilities labelled with the codes P6137, P6137A, and P7632; the company says that its “products are safe to consume if properly handled and fully cooked.”
Salmonella Heidelberg, a more aggressive type of salmonella, is becoming an increasingly common cause of foodborne-disease outbreaks. Although you should assume that all raw poultry is contaminated with salmonella bacteria—the U.S. Department of Agriculture permits some salmonella in the samples tested by its Food Safety and Inspection Service—it’s uncommon for salmonella to be as bulletproof as the Heidelberg strain. And it has only become stronger over time: it now rebuffs ceftriaxone, an antibiotic that is especially important for treating young children with salmonella infections, as well as ampicillin and ciprofloxacin.
This resistance is being amplified by the rampant overuse of antibiotics in poultry and livestock production. They’re deployed not only to ward off diseases that could wipe out populations jammed together in unsanitary conditions but also to make the animals fatter by altering the bacteria in their guts, slowing their metabolisms. The practice is dangerous: when antibiotics are administered in low doses over long periods of time, resistance inevitably emerges. Earlier this summer, Consumer Reports published an analysis of ground turkey from retail stores, which revealed that over half were contaminated with fecal bacteria including salmonella, and turkeys treated with antibiotics were more likely to harbor drug-resistant bacteria. In contrast to Foster Farms, Cargill Value Added Meats Retail, the source of a 2011 outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg tied to ground turkey, recalled thirty-six million pounds of the suspect poultry meat. Shortly after the Cargill recall, the Government Accountability Office released a report blasting the C.D.C., F.D.A., and U.S.D.A. on the lack of data it was collecting on antibiotic use in food animals and resistant bacteria in animals and retail meat.
“We are less safe,” tweeted Dr. Tom Frieden, the C.D.C. director, as the shutdown began. In the coming weeks, we can expect more reports of salmonella, for sure—not to mention clusters of headaches and confusion in patients with chronic back pain; young women hospitalized for vomiting, abdominal pain, jaundice, and dark urine in the Southwest; salad-bar lunchers with watery diarrhea in Texas, Iowa, and Nebraska. While the federal government may have shut down, infectious diseases and other threats have not.