A short staff at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the federal government shutdown limits the organization’s ability to track existing or emerging outbreaks of food borne illness.

CDC: Shutdown puts food safety at riskQuoted on National Public Radio, Chris Braden, director of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases says a team of eight people overseeing the critical foodborne illness tracking database PulseNet has been reduced to three. PulseNet compares the “DNA fingerprints” of bacteria from patients to find clusters of disease that might represent unrecognized outbreaks.

PulseNet was launched in 1996 in response to the 1993 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7, associated with Jack in the Box restaurants in the Western United States. More than 700 people became ill and four died during that outbreak. According to the PulseNet website, the system identifies outbreaks by connecting the dots, in this case DNA fingerprints of bacteria making people sick. Once PulseNet makes these connections and an outbreak is identified, PulseNet can work with teams at the CDC and state and local health departments to figure out what is causing people to get sick. Each year PulseNet identifies:

  • About 1,500 clusters of foodborne disease at local or state levels.
  • About 250 clusters that span multiple states.
  • 10-15 multistate outbreaks of foodborne disease that are widely dispersed.

Since the creation of PulseNet in 1996, more than one-half billion pounds of contaminated food have been recalled due, in part, to PulseNet activities.

According to the NPR story, the CDC is currently monitoring about 30 clusters of foodborne illnesses around the country, which is typical at any given time. Braden says his reduced staff is focusing on areas of highest risk, but he expresses concern over their ability to respond to a large outbreak, as about half of CDC staffers involved in surveillance and outbreak response are furloughed.

Braden says he has authority to bring this staff back to work in an emergency, but adds that the process likely would slow the response time.