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CDC: Shutdown Strains Foodborne Illness Tracking

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As we reported Tuesday, the government shutdown is pushing the nation's food safety system to its limits.

For instance, there is normally a team of eight people overseeing the critical foodborne illness tracking database PulseNet. This team identifies clusters of sickness linked to potentially dangerous strains of pathogens such as E. coli or salmonella.

But with the shutdown, more than half of this staff has been sent home

"We have three people right now," says Chris Braden, director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases at the CDC.

Given that the CDC is currently monitoring about 30 clusters of foodborne illnesses around the country, which is typical at any given time, we asked Braden if he was worried about keeping up with them.

"We are focusing on those areas that we have identified at greatest risk, but it does concern me that we could miss something," Braden says.

For now, Braden says they will continue to monitor clusters that they already know about.

But "if one of those clusters blows up into something big" such as a multistate outbreak, then Braden says "we would be beyond our capacity."

It's not just the PulseNet staff who have been furloughed, but also half the CDC staffers involved in surveillance and outbreak response.

Braden says he does have the authority to bring this staff back to work if it seems that lives are threatened.

But, he says, "it would it would take us some time to bring people off furlough and to ramp up to respond to it."

Food safety advocates say this is far from ideal.

"If an outbreak does occur during this government shutdown, it's likely it's going to go on longer and affect more people," says Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

This is why she says it's imperative for lawmakers to end the shutdown.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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