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Chicken salmonella outbreak becomes symbol of federal shutdown

October 09, 2013|By Michael Muskal

The federal government’s partial shutdown has led to a partial return of furloughed workers, including some workers needed to investigate an outbreak of salmonella in chicken.

One of the ironies of the shutdown is how the politics have been presented. In their drive to end it, lawmakers and others highlight the important work that has been put on hold in the political dispute, especially the loss of key services to families of veterans, consumers and workers whose lives are made better by government inspections. But as the media report on those dislocations, the government and some private groups have moved quickly to solve the problems -- although ending the shutdown continues to be a political thorn.

So far, families of American service members killed abroad have had their expenses for funeral and transportation paid by a private Maryland foundation after the government couldn’t make the $100,000-per-family payment because of the shutdown. President Obama ordered his administration Wednesday to restore those benefits. A monument to veterans was reopened though other parks remain closed. And about half of the 800,000 government workers originally furloughed have been ordered back to work by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

Others have not been that lucky. Some Head Start programs that lost their funding as of Oct. 1 -- the day the partial shutdown began -- have received some help from private sources to make ends meet, but many haven’t. Federal Emergency Management Agency workers were recalled to deal with Tropical Storm Karen when it appeared to threaten states along the Gulf Coast, but many other workers remain out of work.

The latest Band-Aid came this week when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recalled some furloughed workers to deal with the outbreak of salmonella, which has sickened almost 300 people in 18 states. Still, fewer than half of the 80 employees in the division that monitors food-borne illnesses will be coming back, and there are an estimated 30 outbreaks to be investigated.

“There's a backlog, and the team is going to have to work diligently and long hours to try and overcome that,” Dr. Christopher Braden, head of the division, told Associated Press earlier this week. “It's possible we may find something we've missed, and when that's the case it's harder to start investigations later than earlier.”

The salmonella outbreak has been traced to raw chicken products from three Foster Farms facilities in California, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The investigation is ongoing and FSIS is prepared to take additional actions or expand the investigation based on new evidence,” the agency said. “FSIS reminds consumers to properly handle raw poultry in a manner to prevent contamination from spreading to other foods and food contact surfaces.”

Poultry producer Foster Farms put out a statement reminding consumers to handle poultry properly.

“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.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a private watchdog group, had warned against a piecemeal approach to dealing with the partial shutdown. Republicans have pushed for bills returning some funding, but Democrats and President Obama have insisted that such an approach would be likely to leave the agencies that help the poor and senior citizens out in the cold.

According to the center, a bill that would fund the Food and Drug Administration until Dec. 15 leaves out the dozen other agencies involved in protecting food.

“Besides the FDA, CDC and USDA, the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration examines seafood for safety and quality, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates the use of pesticides, and the Department of Homeland Security coordinates all those agencies' security activities,” the center said.

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