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Utah forming new rapid response team for natural disasters, foodborne illness outbreaks

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue, KSL | Posted - Jul 10th, 2019 @ 6:45pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Summer is the time for outdoor parties, barbecues and visiting the pool, but it is also the time of year when doctors and Utah officials observe an uptick in the incidences of foodborne illnesses.

"It is normal, it is what we expect," said Delaney Moore, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health who specializes in foodborne illnesses.

The state is forming a Utah rapid response team to better coordinate responses to outbreaks and also to help keep people safe during natural disasters.

The Food and Drug Administration awarded $1.3 million to the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food to form the team, which will be made up of food safety experts from local, state and federal entities.

"We do experience foodborne illness outbreaks every year, and we look at every outbreak seriously," said Travis Waller, regulatory director with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

Waller said formation of the team will strengthen existing relationships that agency has with the Utah Department of Health and local health departments, as well as federal agencies should there be a regionwide incident.

Moore said the Centers for Disease Control estimates 48 million people get sick each year across the country from exposure to bacteria like salmonella, listeria or Campylobacter.

"We always remember that the numbers we are seeing are a big underestimate," she said. "We are only hearing about those people who are getting sick enough to go to the doctor and get a test."

The program targeted hurricane-prone states for funding when it first began in 2008 and some states self-funded the effort, Waller said.

"This is a tool or mechanism to have in place if and when there is a natural disaster and we can better coordinate our efforts to make sure people are being fed and being fed food that is wholesome," he said.

Two years ago, raw turkey was linked to a salmonella outbreak that led to one death and sickened 164 people in 35 states.

Contaminated raw milk sickened at least 45 people in northern Utah in 2014 and a listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupe killed 30 people and sickened more than a hundred people in multiple states in 2011.

Waller cited a 2017 incident in Pennsylvania in which two children eating at a restaurant were exposed to a toxic chemical from apple juice they were served.

Upon admission to the hospital, the state's rapid response team was notified. The team notified the public, closed the restaurant and did lab testing that revealed the toxin sodium hydroxide as the culprit.

Waller said the team's efforts will include setting up two-way communication tools to relay information to the public and coordinate with doctors and law enforcement.

Moore stressed that people should always thoroughly wash their hands before preparing food, should refrain from preparing food if they are sick and be careful to keep raw meat products away from other types of food to avoid cross contamination.

Amy Joi O'Donoghue

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