Category Archives: Public Health

Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak from raw chicken from Foster Farms – and the CDC and the USDA are at reduced capacity because of the government shutdown


Let’s start with the lead of the NPR story

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued a health alert warning that an estimated 278 illnesses caused by Salmonella Heidelberg are associated with raw chicken produced by Foster Farms at three facilities in California.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says illnesses have been reported in 17 states, with the vast majority — 78 percent — in California. The outbreak is ongoing, so it’s possible that people are still being sickened by the chicken.

The CDC says about 42 percent of the people who’ve gotten sick (among those for whom information is available) have been hospitalized. The strains of Salmonella Heidelberg that have made people sick are resistant to several commonly prescribed antibiotics. And according to the CDC, the resistance may increase the risk of hospitalization or make the illness tougher to treat.

From the USDA FSIS press release

This public health alert is being issued after an estimated 278 illnesses were recently reported in 18 states, predominantly in California. The outbreak is continuing. The investigations indicate that consumption of Foster Farms brand chicken and other brand chicken produced at Foster Farms plants are the likely source of this outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections. Illnesses were linked to Foster Farms brand chicken through epidemiologic, laboratory and traceback investigations conducted by local, state, and federal officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is partnering with state health departments to monitor the outbreak while FSIS continues its investigation.

and from the CDC’s MMWR report, a case count and map –

As of October 7, 2013, a total of 278 individuals infected with the outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg have been reported from 17 states. Most of the ill persons (77%) have been reported from California. The number of ill persons identified in each state is as follows: Alaska (2), Arkansas (1), Arizona (11), California (213), Colorado (4), Connecticut (1), Florida (1), Hawaii (1), Idaho (2), Michigan (2), North Carolina (1), Nevada (8), Oregon (8), Texas (5), Utah (2), Washington (15) and Wisconsin (1).

From WZZM / USA Today

The CDC has been hampered in tracing the outbreak because the government shutdown meant the agency had to shut down PulseNet, a national network of public health laboratories that looks for trends and matches reports to spot food-borne illness outbreaks. It’s one of the agency’s most important tools in detecting such problems.

“We were trying to do this without the automatic system, and it was nearly impossible,” Reynolds said. Seven of the eight staffers who run the system were furloughed. “We were doing it by hand, and it just become untenable.”

CDC director Thomas Frieden determined that not having PulseNet was resulting in “an imminent threat to health and safety,” a finding that allowed the agency to bring back the seven staffers, Reynolds said Tuesday. “It’s back up and running as of today.”

More about PulseNet

PulseNet compares the ‘DNA fingerprints’ of bacteria from patients to find clusters of disease that might represent unrecognized outbreaks. Health officials can’t stop an outbreak, and industry and regulatory agencies can’t make changes to our food and water delivery systems, if they don’t know that outbreaks are occurring. That’s where PulseNet comes in.

What does Foster Farms have to say?

“Salmonella is naturally occurring in poultry and can be fully eradicated if raw product is properly handled and fully cooked,” said Dr. Robert O’Connor, the company’s food safety chief and head veterinarian. “All poultry producers strive to reduce bacterial presence, including Salmonella. We take food safety very seriously. When the incidence of illnesses linked to Salmonella increased, we wanted to know why and we have worked quickly to identify and implement additional controls. It is also important to reassure the public that the FSIS process has not been affected by the recent government shutdown.”

Notably they also emphasize, in red:

No Recall is in Effect. Products are Safe to Consume if Properly Handled and Fully Cooked.