The recent outbreak of listeriosis, which has been traced to cantaloupes from Colorado, is shaping up to be the deadliest food-borne outbreak in the U.S. in years, with the death toll expected to continue mounting through next month.
Already, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a nationwide warning for consumers to avoid fruit “marketed as cantaloupes harvested in the Rocky Ford region” of Colorado.
The CDC reports that since mid-August, “15 persons infected with the outbreak strain of Listeria monocytogenes have been reported from 4 states.” The agency is coordinating a multi-state investigation along with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and several state and local health agencies, and it says “listeriosis illnesses in several other states are currently being investigated… to determine if these illnesses are part of this outbreak.” (The map below shows the number of infected individuals identified so far in each state.)
By pure coincidence, the listeria bacteria were starting to spread just as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report entitled Actions Needed to Improve Response to Potential Terrorist Attacks and Natural Disasters Affecting Food and Agriculture, part of its mandate under the 2004 Homeland Security Policy Directive (HSPD) -9, which established a national policy to defend U.S. food and agriculture systems against terrorist attacks, major disasters and other emergencies.
In the report and in subsequent testimony on Capitol Hill, GAO reported that there is no centralized coordination or oversight of progress on HSPD-9 implementation across relevant agencies such as DHS, USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). As a result, “the nation may not be assured that these crosscutting agency efforts are effective at reducing the vulnerability to, and impact of, major emergencies” involving the U.S. food and agriculture sector.
GAO made nine recommendations, among them:
- To help ensure that the federal government is effectively implementing the nation’s food and agriculture defense policy, the Secretary of Homeland Security should resume DHS’s efforts to coordinate agencies’ overall HSPD-9 implementation efforts.
- To help ensure that the federal government is effectively implementing the nation’s food and agriculture defense policy, the [White House] Homeland Security Council should direct the National Security Staff to establish an interagency process that would provide oversight of agencies’ implementation of HSPD-9.
- To help ensure that the federal government is effectively implementing the nation’s food and agriculture defense policy, the Homeland Security Council should direct the National Security Staff to encourage agencies to participate in and contribute information to DHS’s efforts to coordinate agencies’ implementation of HSPD-9.
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