The Salt
3:23 pm
Thu October 3, 2013

CDC: Shutdown Strains Foodborne Illness Tracking

Originally published on Fri October 4, 2013 9:38 am

As we reported Tuesday, the government shutdown is pushing the nation's food safety system to its limits.

For instance, there is normally a team of eight people overseeing the critical foodborne illness tracking database PulseNet. This team identifies clusters of sickness linked to potentially dangerous strains of pathogens such as E. coli or salmonella.

But with the shutdown, more than half of this staff has been sent home

"We have three people right now," says Chris Braden, director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases at the CDC.

Given that the CDC is currently monitoring about 30 clusters of foodborne illnesses around the country, which is typical at any given time, we asked Braden if he was worried about keeping up with them.

"We are focusing on those areas that we have identified at greatest risk, but it does concern me that we could miss something," Braden says.

For now, Braden says they will continue to monitor clusters that they already know about.

But "if one of those clusters blows up into something big" such as a multistate outbreak, then Braden says "we would be beyond our capacity."

It's not just the PulseNet staff who have been furloughed, but also half the CDC staffers involved in surveillance and outbreak response.

Braden says he does have the authority to bring this staff back to work if it seems that lives are threatened.

But, he says, "it would take us some time to bring people off furlough and to ramp up to respond to it."

Food safety advocates say this is far from ideal.

"If an outbreak does occur during this government shutdown, it's likely it's going to go on longer and affect more people," says Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

This is why she says it's imperative for lawmakers to end the shutdown.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The government shutdown is straining the nation's food safety system. At the CDC, more than half the staff responsible for tracking foodborne illness have been furloughed.

NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: At an office inside the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, there are normally eight people who oversee the nation's critical foodborne illness tracking database called PulseNet. It's their job to identify clusters of sickness linked to potentially dangerous pathogens, such as E. coli or salmonella. But since the government shutdown began, they're down to three people.

CHRISTOPHER BRADEN: That's right. There's three people that are working the database right now.

AUBREY: So is it possible for three people to do the job of eight?

BRADEN: No.

AUBREY: That's Christopher Braden, who directs CDC's efforts to identify and stop foodborne disease. He says in a typical month, the CDC is following about 30 clusters of illnesses around the country. And new clusters are constantly being identified. So with the staff at such reduced capacity, does it worry Braden that his team might miss something important?

BRADEN: It does. I think we are focusing on those areas that we have identified at greatest risk. But it does concern me that we could miss something.

AUBREY: The way it normally works is that the PulseNet scientists spend their days poring over the DNA fingerprints of bacteria or other pathogens that have made someone, somewhere in the country, sick enough to seek treatment.

BRADEN: So if an ill person with a diarrheal illness goes to their doctor, their doctor thinks that they may have salmonella and they actually do identify salmonella in a culture.

AUBREY: And then that information is sent to the CDC. Now, when the PulseNet team sees that the bug that made one person sick looks genetically identical or very similar to the bug that is making other people sick...

BRADEN: Then they probably got sick by eating the same food. So it tells us that those cases are potentially linked and may be representative of an outbreak.

AUBREY: Now, the last big outbreak, just over the summer, that made over 600 people sick in 25 states was identified in just this way. And as a result, investigators were able to link the outbreak, which was caused by a parasite called cyclospora, to bagged lettuce from Mexico. But Braden says now, with the government shutdown, if a new cluster starts to grow into an outbreak, he'd be scrambling.

BRADEN: If one of those clusters blows up into something big, then we would be beyond our capacity.

AUBREY: You see, it's not just the PulseNet staff that's been furloughed. Half of the CDC staffers who would normally swing into action once an outbreak has been identified have also been sent home. Now, Braden says he does have the authority to bring them back if it seems as if lives are threatened. But he says...

BRADEN: It would take us some time to bring people in off of furlough to ramp up to respond to it.

AUBREY: Food safety experts, such as Caroline Smith DeWaal of the watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest, says this is far from ideal.

CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL: If an outbreak does occur during this government shutdown, it's likely it's going to go on longer and affect more people.

AUBREY: Which is why she says it's imperative for lawmakers to end the shutdown.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.