Food poisoning & gov’t shutdown

After eating chicken dinners, at least 317 people have been hit by nausea, headaches and fevers in a 20-state salmonella outbreak, which began in March, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Oct. 11.  A new round of illnesses began a week before the federal government’s shutdown on Oct. 1.

Some 42 percent of the ill have required hospitalization, twice the usual rate for this pathogen.  Of the seven strains involved, some are antibiotic-resistant.  This infection can be life threatening to individuals with compromised immune systems — children, the elderly, and people with cancer or who are HIV-positive.

Carolina Smith DeWaal, Center for Science in the Public Interest food safety director, stressed on its blog on Oct. 8: “This outbreak shows that it 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. … [It] is further evidence that consumers need our government back at work, with food-safety agencies adequately funded.”

The source of the contamination has been traced to raw poultry from three Foster Farm poultry plants in California.  The company has not recalled its diseased products, nor has the federal government ordered officials to do so, despite urgent appeals from food safety advocacy groups — even though people are still getting sick.  The company’s response: Consumers should cook the poultry at a higher temperature.

Federal agencies should have gone on full alert to stop this serious outbreak, which has sickened so many people, especially on the West Coast.

Due to the shutdown, however, offices are empty at the federal agencies which scrutinize the food supply and are essential in protecting public health.  Quick action is needed to investigate sources of food-borne illnesses and to implement measures to prevent and/or curtail outbreaks.  Speed is of the essence.

The CDC, which monitors hazardous pathogens and investigates sources of food-borne illnesses, was down to 10 staff members in that division.  The agency furloughed 9,000 workers, 68 percent of their staff, resulting in no staff or only one worker in some departments. Thirty workers were brought back to deal with the salmonella outbreak.

The lack of staff has limited the CDC’s ability to alert the public about the salmonella outbreak and to update their database, which tracks food-borne illnesses. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s hotline, which publicizes food safety problems or enables consumers to report related illnesses, has closed down.   These closures impede consumers’ ability to get information about food safety risks and outbreaks.

The Food and Drug Administration, which is supposed to monitor food eaten in the U.S., has furloughed 6,620 employees and is currently not inspecting plants.  States have indefinitely postponed 9,000 inspections due to funding shortfalls.

Food safety a low priority

Even before the shutdown, food safety was a low priority.  FDA, USDA Food Safety Inspection Service and CDC departments that deal with this issue were inadequately funded and staffed.  Large budget cuts from federal sequestration, including a $285 million reduction for the CDC, had affected their work.

Whether intentionally or not, federal agencies are limited in compelling food producers to recall tainted food.  During the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, FDA funding was gutted.  So were inspection programs; much of that was privatized.  Only 6 percent of domestic food producers were inspected in 2011.

Congress passed a new food safety law in 2011, but its implementation was delayed due to sequestration cutbacks. The shutdown will postpone it further.

However, the government agencies’ food safety programs are woefully inadequate and the problems so vast that the public’s health is at risk.  Each year, 3,000 people die, 128,000 are hospitalized, and there are 48 million reports of food-borne illness.

The federal government has the responsibility to protect public health. Its agencies’ food safety and health programs should be fully funded and expanded.  However, there must be real accountability by the food producers.  All plants should be inspected.  Companies should be penalized, even closed down, when they flout safety regulations and endanger the population.

The interests of these companies can run counter to those of the public because their goal is to maximize profits, even if it means cutting corners and ignoring safety and health procedures — jeopardizing public health — to do so.  It’s a sure bet in a capitalist society that they will do what all business owners do: Keep costs low, evade those annoying safety regulations and move production as quickly as possible to get products to the market to sell.

Moreover, the federal agencies, which are tasked with protecting the public’s health, are part of a capitalist government which safeguards the interests of business owners.  This is why the FDA, for instance, rarely enforces strong penalties against recalcitrant food producers or shuts them down.

It is because of the pressure and actions by food-safety, consumer, environmental and health advocacy groups that there are regulations to protect the public.  Companies are held accountable and forced to recall products or even close only when there is a mass outcry against their unsafe practices.

These organizations and workers’ and community groups should have a strong say in determining food safety policies and holding corporations accountable.  Ultimately, the capitalist system is at the root of the health crisis.  It’s time to replace it.