Now that the federal branch of government is back in the game, it’s a good time to reflect on the food safety implications of the Shutdown.
With forty-five percent of its employees furloughed this October, the Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) ability to support food safety activities rapidly dwindled throughout the federal government shutdown. The agency’s assistant commissioner for public affairs recently released a statement saying the agency would no longer be conducting routine domestic or international inspections of food facilities, and would also have to cease activities involving compliance and enforcement, monitoring of imports, and notification programs (e.g., food contact substances, infant formula), to name just a few.
The CDC also said the disappearance of government funds drastically cut its ability to respond to food-borne illness outbreaks, considering that 68 percent of its staff had been placed on furlough.
Throughout the shutdown, an obvious question arose: which foods could you actually feel comfortable feeding yourself and your family?
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service was able to hold down the fort on our meat, poultry, and egg supply because its inspectors are required by law to be present in every meat-processing facility or the plant can’t operate. (The FDA plays a smaller role in these factories.) More importantly, any of its employees tasked with inspection cannot be furloughed in the case of a shutdown.
The federal agency overseeing US fisheries (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)) continued to inspect American-sourced shellfish and seafood (the NOAA is not funded through Congress). However, American-raised seafood accounts for only 9% of the shellfish and seafood sold in our nation. The remaining 91% of imported shellfish/seafood was not being inspected by the FDA during the shutdown.
The same went for produce. The FDA did not inspect nearly 50% of the fruit and 20% of the vegetables Americans had been consuming this month.
Even in this time of political discontent, there is a silver lining in it for local food producers. Recall that all foods shipped, driven, or flown from other states and other countries are subject to federal inspection. All foods produced and sold locally, however, are subject to state inspections, which were unaffected by the federal Shutdown. That’s a good point to remember for the next shutdown.