Posted 10 months ago on Oct. 11, 2013, 4:47 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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Salmonella and Hepatitis Outbreaks Start Up as Government Shuts Down
Friday, 11 October 2013 12:15 By Michael Meurer and Candice Bernd, Truthout | News Analysis
Food-borne pathogens are not cooperating with the Republican shutdown of the US government.
In fact, they are busy sickening and killing Americans in more than 18 states, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are scrambling to recall furloughed employees to deal with a dangerous food-borne salmonella outbreak and a lethal Hepatitis outbreak in Hawaii.
The dual outbreaks have been linked to contaminated Foster Farms chicken products and the Dallas-based USPLabs LLC dietary supplement, OxyElite Pro. The outbreaks have sickened more than 300 people so far, killed one and hospitalized 87, with reports of antibiotic resistance for the precipitating strain of salmonella Heidelberg. No recall is currently in effect for Foster Farms chicken, but USPLabs LLC has ceased distributing the supplement until the FDA investigation is complete.
US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) inspectors have not been affected by the ongoing government shutdown as many meat and poultry facilities cannot legally operate without a USDA inspector on site. But more than 45 percent of all FDA employees have been furloughed, leaving daily operations such as crucial inspections of food imports on hiatus until the government reopens.
The CDC, which functions as the detective agency for the FDA and FSIS, was down to a skeleton crew of just 10 employees in its food-borne illness division when the latest outbreaks occurred.
Since the government shutdown began 11 days ago, these 10 employees have been struggling to maintain the constant updates required by the CDC's nationwide PulseNet database for tracking food-borne pathogens and outbreaks. All federal and state agencies across the United States rely on this database for their work on food safety.
The US Food Safety Modus Operandi
There are three US government agencies charged with keeping our food safe through inspection and prevention programs. The FDA is the main agency conducting inspections, followed by the FSIS meat inspection program under the USDA, and the CDC in its capacity as epidemiological detective agency.
The food-borne illness divisions of all three agencies are underfunded and understaffed even during times when the government is fully operational. Many food safety experts believe a chronic lack of funding is putting Americans at risk on a daily basis, to which 3,000 deaths, 128,000 hospitalizations and over 48 million reported annual instances of food-borne illness bear witness. The federal shutdown has pushed the FSIS, FDA and CDC into crisis, endangering Americans in all 50 states.
In addition to the dangerous underfunding at the FDA, privatized meat inspection programs have slashed the number of USDA inspectors at pilot plants around the nation. This larger trend of chronic underfunding and privatization reveal a systemic negligence that had contributed to making food safety a low priority even before the government shutdown.
The entire multi-agency US food safety program currently operates on a reactive model, in which after-the-fact recalls and outbreak containment have replaced prevention and aggressive inspections. For example, only 6 percent of domestic food producers and 0.4 percent of food importers were inspected in 2011, a typical year. With a federal shutdown, we are seeing the catastrophic effects of this reactive model and its cost in damaged and lost lives. The current crisis demands a clear understanding of how food safety has been compromised and the implementation of smart solutions, many of which are already on the table.
How Did We Get Here?
In January of 2007, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified federal oversight of food safety as a "high-risk" area that needs further action and attention, stating that "the patchwork nature of the federal oversight of food safety calls into question whether the government can plan more strategically to inspect food production processes, identify and react more quickly to any outbreaks of contaminated food, and focus on achieving results to promote the safety and integrity of the nation's food supply."
The report identified several problems that weaken oversight of the US food safety system, including spending resources on overlapping food safety activities, where jurisdiction between the FDA and the USDA is not clearly defined; limited authority to compel companies to carry out recalls; fiscal challenges including budget cuts; and vulnerability to biological terrorism. Overall the GAO called the US food system fragmented:
This federal regulatory system for food safety evolved piecemeal, typically in response to particular health threats or economic crises. During the past 30 years, [the GAO has] detailed problems with the fragmented federal food safety system and reported that the system has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources. [The GAO's] most recent work demonstrates that these challenges persist.
In 2007, another report was released, authored by academics, industry experts and other government agencies, finding the FDA was so underfunded and understaffed, it is putting consumers at risk. The report concluded that a plethora of problems plagued the food safety system, including inadequate inspections of food manufacturers, a broken food import system, a depleted FDA staff with added responsibilities, and other wide-ranging problems. While some of the problems identified in the 2007 GAO report, such as oversight authority issues, will theoretically be mitigated with the full implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which became law in 2011, the food safety system remains on the GAO's list of "high risk" areas in 2013. The GAO could not be contacted for this story due to the ongoing government shutdown. A history of underfunding stretches back through both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, especially the latter, which gutted much of the FDA inspection regime and cut its budget. More recently, the federal government under the Obama administration instituted a new statistical method for calculating food-borne deaths and illnesses that may understate the problem.
Additionally, a legacy of privatization during the Clinton and Bush administrations helped weaken USDA inspection in meat plants by experimenting with pilot programs such as the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-Based Inspection Models Project - or HIMP - which has been in place in some meat plants since the late 1990s. The USDA recently announced plans to expand the HIMP pilot program, which would replace almost half the USDA inspectors in industrial meat plants with inspectors employed by those very same companies.
The USDA has allowed HIMP and similar privatized, experimental meat inspection programs to be used in meat plants in foreign countries, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand, whose products are for export to the United States. Pilot plants using the HIMP model in the United States, as well as meat plants using similar privatized inspection in foreign countries, have been plagued by an epidemic of contamination-related problems within the past two years.
The CDC has confirmed that outbreaks linked to imported food have been on the rise since the 1990s. With nearly half of FDA staff furloughed, about 91 percent of all imported seafood, nearly 50 percent of imported fruits and 20 percent of imported vegetables are going uninspected.
Many inspections in the United States are still being carried out through state and local agencies, but reporting any problems encountered at the federal level will prove challenging as the shutdown persists.