A Washington state health official is hitting roadblocks in seeking to test farm pigs that could help track down the source of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened dozens, and perhaps thousands, in 11 counties.

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A Washington state health official wants to test farm pigs to pinpoint the source of an ongoing salmonella outbreak tied to whole hogs, but he’s getting pushback from agriculture officials and pork-industry trade groups.

Dr. Scott Lindquist, state epidemiologist, sent letters in mid-August asking to test swine at one farm in Washington state and five in Montana for evidence of Salmonella I 4,[5], 12:i:-. So far, there’s no decision.

“I’ve been asking for this for a month now,” Lindquist said. “I wrote a formal letter two weeks ago.”

The oddly named strain of salmonella, common nationally but never before seen in Washington, now has sickened at least 167 people in 11 counties with confirmed illness since April, health officials said. The actual numbers might include more than 4,800 who got sick but didn’t seek treatment, Lindquist said. Health officials estimate that for every person confirmed with salmonella, 29 are likely sick.

People who fell ill consumed whole hogs at private barbecues and at several King County restaurants that served dishes containing the tainted meat. At least 24 people have been hospitalized; several lawsuits have been filed.

Lindquist wants to know whether swine sent to Kapowsin Meats in Graham, Pierce County, were colonized with the strain associated with the outbreak. Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a public-health alert because of the problem, and Kapowsin has now recalled more than 520,000 pounds of pork products and closed its doors until the issue is resolved.

“What I’m trying to figure out is, did it come from all the farms that fed into Kapowsin? Was this very specific strain in each of those farms, or was it just one? What if all of these farms test negative?” Lindquist said. “It would be helpful for me to know: Are those pigs carrying this specific salmonella strain?”

So far, however, it’s not clear who may grant or deny Lindquist’s request.

Agriculture officials in the two states and at the USDA say they don’t have authority to require or refuse testing.

Kirk Robinson, deputy director for the Washington State Department of Agriculture, said it’s not clear how the tests would be conducted or who would give the go-ahead to begin.

‘’What would be the protocols around doing that testing?’’ he asked.

“We really don’t have jurisdiction to go on the farm and do some sampling.’’

He added, however, that department officials would be happy to work with farmers and other agencies once any decision is made.

In Montana, a spokesman for Dr. Gregory Holzman, the state’s new medical officer, said his department has broad authority to investigate sources of illness and that Holzma is considering the issue, although there’s no timeline for an answer.

The move by Lindquist also is drawing concern from pork-industry representatives in Montana and at the national level. Montana’s state veterinarian said he has no authority to agree to on-farm testing and he doesn’t think it’s necessary.

“We want to assist the public-health agencies in finding the cause and prevent future incidents. Unfortunately, sampling farms for salmonella will not accomplish this goal,” Dr. Martin Zaluski, state veterinarian with the Montana Department of Livestock, said in an email. “Sampling farms is of limited value to confirm what we already know.”

It’s well known that animals sent for slaughter can carry bacteria harmful to people, and it’s important to stop potential illness through sanitary meat processing and food preparation, Zaluski said.

Dr. Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian for the National Pork Producers Council, and Anne Miller, executive director of the Montana Pork Producers Council, sent Washington health officials letters raising questions about the value of on-farm testing. There are no consistently effective methods to control salmonella on farms, Wagstrom noted.

“The main reason for sending the letter was to ask WADOH (Washington State Department of Health) to reconsider its intent to conduct on-farm testing, which in my scientific opinion would produce no demonstrable benefit to public health,” she wrote in an email to The Seattle Times.

Miller also expressed concerns about the potential effect on the farmers, in a letter to Lindquist.

“How will you assure all affected producers that they and their businesses will be protected before, during and after the on-farm sampling and testing process?” wrote Miller. “How will you assure packers won’t refuse pigs from the farms sampled in this protocol?”

In response to Miller, Lindquist said his focus is not on determining the overall prevalence of salmonella on the pig farms or other issues not related to the Washington outbreak.

“I am interested in pigs which may have this specific Salmonella I 4,[5], 12:i:-,” he wrote to Miller. “I am not interested in implicating any farms …”

If any or all of the farms tested positive for the germ, it would raise questions about where else they sent their pigs, and why no outbreak has been detected at other slaughterhouses, Lindquist said. If no farms tested positive, it could mean the bacteria came from a pig sent for custom slaughter, narrowing the potential sources of the outbreak.

Lindquist said he plans to vigorously pursue the testing, despite any opposition.

“I am here to protect the public’s health,” he said. “It’s the information coming off the farm that’s going to be the key to solving this.”