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Who You Calling Chicken Little?
Nearly 300 people have fallen ill from a salmonella outbreak that includes drug-resistant strains, while federal disease investigators are off the job due to the government shutdown.

Close to 300 people in 18 states have been infected with salmonella in an outbreak traced back to packages of raw chicken. Salmonella outbreaks aren’t unusual, unfortunately—the government reports 51 in the last seven years—but this one is particularly troubling for two reasons:

Some of the salmonella strains are proving hard to treat with drugs, marking them as antibiotic-resistant, which is resulting in an unusually high rate of hospitalization—about double what you would see in a typical outbreak.

The federal government agencies that are usually responsible for detecting, tracking, and combating food-borne disease outbreaks are operating with skeleton crews due to the week-old government shutdown.

Let’s start with the basics. Despite its reduced resources, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been able to trace the bacteria making people sick, Salmonella Heidelberg, back to poultry products that were produced by three Foster Farms facilities in California. The company, though, has not issued a recall, saying that the chicken is safe if consumers cook it thoroughly (though the bacteria can still be spread from raw chicken to kitchen surfaces and cooking utensils).

All food recalls in the United States are voluntary, but the USDA can request one and seize products if a manufacturer refuses. So far, the USDA hasn’t taken that step in this case, though it did issue a public health alert on Monday. (If you’re concerned about your own recent purchases, the outbreak has been traced to packages with USDA inspection numbers P6137, P6137A, and P7632.)

Ordinarily, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would monitor a national outbreak of foodborne illness with a centralized detection system, but that has been shut down due to the stalemate in Washington. CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds told the Washington Post that in order to track the current outbreak, the agency had to call back nearly a dozen experts who had been furloughed.

With its advanced tracking system on the sidelines, the CDC has been forced to rely on email and phone calls with state agencies. Of the 183 sick people investigated by the CDC in this outbreak so far, 42 percent have been hospitalized with diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps, which is about twice the rate of a typical salmonella outbreak. Altogether, 278 illnesses have been reported to date.

“This outbreak shows that this is a terrible time for government public health officials to be locked out of their offices and labs, and for government websites to go dark,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“The livestock industry is using these drugs, breeding drug-resistant bacteria, spreading them into our communities, and threatening our health.”

Hard-to-treat illnesses caused by drug-resistant bacteria are increasingly common due to the overuse of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, the CDC says. Just last month the agency released its first report on the threats posed by antibiotic-resistant germs, concluding that soon, if we’re not careful, we may not have any drugs left that can combat resistant bacteria.

As OnEarth has previously reported (see “You Want Superbugs with That?”), 80 percent of the antibiotics in the U.S. are sold for use in livestock, and the vast majority are administered to promote growth and stave off potential infections, not to treat illness. Bacteria in the guts of farm animals can evolve to resist those antibiotics, then spread from livestock to the humans who tend them. Drug-resistant bacteria can then be passed on to people who have never been anywhere near a chicken house or hog barn.

Yet even as evidence of the practice’s negative impact on human health has grown, more drugs are being administered to livestock than ever before—from 17.8 million pounds per year in 1999 to 29.8 million pounds in 2009.

“The livestock industry is using these drugs, breeding drug-resistant bacteria, spreading them into our communities, and threatening our health,” says Jonathan Kaplan, director of the food and agriculture program at NRDC, which publishes OnEarth. “This is a very clear problem.”

NRDC and several partners have sued the FDA in an attempt to force the agency to restrict the use of antibiotics in healthy livestock; the FDA continues to appeal NRDC’s wins in court, despite scientific evidence and the agency’s own findings—some dating as far back as the 1970s—that the practice poses a danger to human health.

So far, no one has died from the current salmonella outbreak, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have long-term repercussions. “Foodborne illness can have lifelong consequences that range from arthritis to kidney trouble to heart disease,” writes Maryn McKenna, author of the book Superbug, on her Wired blog. And to those who argue that the current outbreak is no big deal—just cook the chicken—she responds that this “fails to account for salmonella’s nimbleness at spreading off raw meat to other niches in professional or home kitchens—a cutting board, a counter, a towel, a sponge, the cook’s hands—and then from there in an undetected manner to other foods.”

In other words, at least for now, it might not be unreasonable if you feel a little chicken about eating, well, chicken.

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image of Susan Cosier
Susan Cosier is OnEarth's Midwest correspondent. She previously worked at Audubon magazine, and has written for a number of science and environmental publications. She's a graduate of New York University's science journalism program. MORE STORIES ➔