Jesse Jones

Food safety investigations - another casualty of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Seattle, WA — It was an unboxing of an outbreak. Just last month the CDC reported that 10 people in four states, including six in Washington, fell ill after eating processed salad products that were contaminated with E. Coli.

Attorney Bill Marler has taken on food safety cases for more than 30 years. He says he’s now seeing something very concerning in the industry.

“Covid has had an impact on the ability for public health to actually surveil foodborne illnesses,” Marler says.

According to the Washington Department of Health, the number of foodborne outbreaks have dropped significantly in Washington state from a high of 62 in 2018 to 17 in 2020.

“And we’re going to see, when the CDC does - and state health authorities - do, what’s happened in 2020 and 2021, it’s going to look like gosh! Foodborne illnesses are down. But the reason they’re down is not necessarily they’re down but they’re just not caught,” Marler explains.

Marler also adds that many people are afraid to go to the hospital because of COVID.

“The way foodborne illness outbreaks happen is that people have to get sick and go to a doctor and get tested. I can tell you that there is a lot of cases that I had throughout the last two years where people have not gone to the doctor and not gotten tested,” Marler says.

A spokesperson with the Washington Department of Health says it is possible that foodborne illnesses are underreported during the pandemic and that sick people are reluctant to seek healthcare with concerns about COVID.

However, they add in a statement that their teams are back to pre-pandemic staffing:

“Many of our foodborne outbreak investigation epidemiologists were deployed to COVID response in the beginning of the pandemic. Since fall of 2020, all foodborne staff have returned to foodborne work.”

We contacted the health departments in the Puget Sound region’s most populous counties: Whatcom, Snohomish, King, Pierce, and Thurston. All say their food safety teams are back to full strength.

But that leads to the federal question: are inspections actually taking place on a national basis?

“And that includes FDA not doing inspections on the ground. They’re doing inspections like you and me are doing an inspection. They’re doing them virtually. And that’s problematic at best,” Marler says.

The FDA admits it is doing remote inspections. But it is sending inspectors on “mission critical” incidents like the Dole packaged salad voluntary recall. The agency says it’s a listeria outbreak that sickened 16 people from 13 states.

So what can you do to protect yourself? And what does ‘washed and bagged’ and all this stuff really mean if people are still getting sick?

“Lettuce is grown outside. And there’s no kill step. You don’t cook lettuce. And you wash it because washing lettuce knocks down the bacterial load, takes some bacteria off it,” Marler says.

Marler’s advice is to stay away from the pre-cut, pre-bagged products.

“I think the best thing to do for consumers is buy a head of lettuce, buy a head of spinach and wash it yourself. You know, take some control of it yourself. Skip the bagged product,” he says.

Part of the reason the numbers are down is that restaurant visits are down. So are big gatherings. But with the surge of Omicron, the future is uncertain.

So - wash your hands. Wash your greens. And check out the CDC’s steps to food safety.

You can also help out investigators by using your grocery store’s loyalty card. If you do get sick, it could help track down the source if you don’t keep all your receipts.

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