Elizabeth Weise , USA TODAY
The salmonella outbreak linked to raw chicken from California involves multiple antibiotic-resistant strains and has a hospitalization rate of 42%, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.
"That's a high percentage," said CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds. "You would expect about 20% hospitalizations with salmonella Heidelberg."
There have been no deaths linked to the outbreak, she said.
Eighteen percent of those sickened in the outbreak have salmonella septicemia, a serious, life-threatening whole-body inflammatory response, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, the food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.
DeWaal was briefed by Christopher Braden, director of the division of food-borne illness at the CDC.
"This outbreak shows that 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," she said.
As of Tuesday, 278 people in 18 states had been sickened in the ongoing salmonella Heidelberg outbreak. It has been linked to chicken produced by Foster Farms at three California plants, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said Monday.
The CDC has been hampered in tracing this outbreak because the government shutdown meant it had to shut down PulseNet. That's a national network of public health laboratories that looks for trends and matches to spot food-borne illness outbreaks. It's one of the agency's most important tools in detecting this kind of problem.
"We were trying to do this without the automatic system, and it was nearly impossible," Reynolds said. Seven of the eight staffers who run the system were furloughed. "We were doing it by hand, and it just become untenable."
CDC director Thomas Frieden determined that not having PulseNet was resulting in "an imminent threat to health and safety," a finding that allowed the agency to bring back the seven staffers, Reynolds said Tuesday. "So they are back, and it's back up and running as of today."
There are seven strains of salmonella Heidelberg involved in the outbreak, some of which are resistant to some commonly used antibodies. That makes this a very "complex" outbreak, Reynolds said.
"The salmonella strains are showing resistance to multiple antibiotics, and that means more people are going to the hospital and their infections will be harder for physicians to treat," DeWaal said.
The USDA's public health alert named three facilities operated by Foster Farms as the likely source of raw chicken contaminated with salmonella. Most of the chicken has been sold in California, Oregon and Washington, and most of the illnesses have occurred in California, the USDA says.
No recall has been announced, and the agency's Food Safety and Inspection Service "is unable to link the illnesses to a specific product and a specific production period," the news release says. Consumers can identify products that came from the three plants by looking for these packaging codes: P6137, P6137A and P7632.
In its own news release, Foster Farms says it is working with USDA inspectors and the CDC to address the outbreak. The company's food safety chief, Robert O'Connor, says the USDA inspection process has not been affected by the federal government shutdown.
Common symptoms of salmonella food poisoning include diarrhea, cramps and fever that typically start eight to 72 hours after eating food with high levels of the bacteria. Some people get chills, nausea and vomiting, lasting up to seven days, the USDA says. For people with weak immune systems, including infants and the elderly, the infection can be deadly.
Foster Farms encouraged consumers to cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees to kill disease-carrying pathogens. The USDA recommends that consumers use a food thermometer as the only way to ensure the proper temperature is reached.
An outbreak of one of the same strains of salmonella was linked to Foster Farms chicken in 2012 in Oregon and Washington. That outbreak sickened 134 people in 13 states, the CDC reported in July.
In a statement on its website, Foster Farms said it has "instituted a number of additional food safety practices, processes and technology throughout company facilities that have already proven effective in controlling salmonella in its Pacific Northwest operations earlier this year."
Salmonella is known to contaminate poultry flocks in the USA. "Salmonella is naturally occurring in poultry and can be fully eradicated if raw product is properly handled and fully cooked," O'Connor of Foster Farms said.
Several European countries have succeeded in eradicating it in their flocks through stringent controls, but those controls are considered too costly to implement in the USA.