The government shutdown is making our food less safe

We all have to eat, which may explain why food safety protections have such broad public support. No elected representative wants to stand for subjecting more children, elderly people and other vulnerable populations to serious foodborne illness. Yet, the current government shutdown seems likely to have that effect.

Two agencies — the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) — share primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of the U.S. food supply. The shutdown affects both of them in serious ways.

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At FDA, shutdown plans called for furloughing 41 percent of the agency’s 17,397 employees. But that number is misleading, because food safety is affected differently than other activities at the agency.  The approval of new medical products and other “user fee” supported tasks at FDA are effectively immune to the shutdown. FDA’s food safety division, however, is almost entirely supported by appropriations. As a result, the regulators charged with ensuring the safety of 75 percent of the food supply have mostly been sent home.

One particularly tangible impact of FDA’s funding lapse is the suspension of routine inspections. That cop is no longer on the beat; the inspectors are furloughed. Maybe they would not have found any violations at the plants they were scheduled to visit. Maybe the plants would not have made any corrections to reduce foodborne illness risk and prevent someone’s child from ending up in the hospital. We may never know, but this state of affairs raises grave concerns unless you think food facility inspections are pointless.

Most Americans support more inspections, not to mention other food safety protections. In 2008, a poll by industry group Leafy Greens Marketing Association found that 89 percent of respondents favored “mandatory farm inspections by the government to verify compliance with [minimum] food safety practices.”

That reform became closer to reality when the Food Safety Modernization Act, or FSMA, sailed through Congress with strong bipartisan support, and closer still when FDA finalized regulations under FSMA. Much work remains in implementing FSMA, however, including writing the guidance that will determine how food producers comply with much of the new rules, and training state agricultural and public health department employees, who will carry out much of the inspection workload. The shutdown has put that work in limbo.

It has also cast uncertainty on how well FDA will protect the American food supply in other ways. According to the agency, FDA will continue to conduct “for cause” inspections and pursue criminal and civil investigations related to “imminent threats to human health or life.” However, consumer advocates have pointed out that the agency has posted no new warning letters since the shutdown began more than two weeks ago, raising concerns that enforcement activities have also ground to a halt. 

At USDA’s FSIS, similar concerns apply. Don’t call the FSIS hotline if you want to report a problem with a meat, poultry, egg, or catfish product: “Due to the lack of federal appropriations, the USDA meat and poultry hotline agents are not available to take your call.” Because the meat and poultry inspection laws require “continuous” inspection, however, FSIS inspectors are “excepted” from furloughs.

This brings up a separate concern as to the shutdown’s impact on food safety. Aside from the activities that the agencies have planned to suspend, what else will fall by the wayside as employees lose their focus, or their ability to get to work altogether? Like their fellow federal employees in the Transportation Security Administration, FSIS inspectors are working without pay. According to recent estimates, the starting salary for FSIS inspectors ranges from $31,315 to $50,431 annually. How many of these inspectors are among the 62 percent of Americans with less than $1,000 in savings? How many have already stopped showing up to a job they cannot afford to commute to?

Consumers deserve better assurance than this that their food is being kept safe. Let’s hope this shutdown ends soon.

Thomas Gremillion is the director of Food Policy at the Consumer Federation of America.