Kyle Bagenstose of  USA Today did a deep dive into food safety in today’s article: “Inspections, citations, recalls slashed: Coronavirus is testing America’s food safety net.”  The lack of inspections and recalls are of great concern.

In addition, the questions raised about foodborne illness investigations (or the lack thereof) are of even great concern, as I weighed in on:

Another weak link in the food safety chain involves doctors, patients and health departments.  

Typically, outbreak investigations start at the local level, when a sick patient visits a doctor and a stool sample is taken. Those samples are then collected through a series of commercial and public health laboratories before being uploaded into the PulseNet database.

But hospitals and health departments are understandably focused on COVID-19, said William Marler, an attorney with Marler Clark in Seattle who specializes in food safety.

“If a kid gets acute kidney failure caused by E. coli, normally there would be a health worker there interviewing them to find out the common denominator for their illness,” Marler said. “Are they able to do that? I think the answer is probably not.”

There are additional signs such shortfalls may be occurring.

On a national call with consumer groups last week, CDC officials said several state health departments reported trouble keeping up with stool sample testing and asked for federal support. One state, which was not identified by the CDC, requested further help with interviewing patients to determine what they ate.

Janet Hamilton, executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists says her organization has also been holding weekly COVID-19 calls with health officials from across the country. 

Asked about whether state health departments were struggling to keep up with foodborne illness responsibilities, Hamilton did not offer specifics but said such agencies were being crunched by years of budget cuts even before coronavirus.

“Of course, protecting the nation’s food supply is critical,” Hamilton said, “but what we need is consistent, dedicated funding to support our public health infrastructure, to ensure we’re ready to respond to foodborne illnesses, as well as any other kind of outbreak.”

Many experts said they believe the drop-off in sampling may be caused by Americans choosing to stay home rather than seek treatment and testing for stomach problems.

“There’s no question that people who have called us over the last couple of months, have gone, ‘I don’t really want to go to the doctor because of COVID,’” Marler said. “Clearly some of the mild cases of foodborne illness are not going to get caught.”

Marler added that there may also be changes to risk factors for foodborne illness, with less eating out at restaurants and more people eating out at home.

But he said we probably won’t not have all the answers until after the pandemic has subsided.

“It’s going to be an interesting time after all this is over,” he said, “to sort of do an analysis of the whole food safety system and what impact COVID did or did not have.