What The Government Shutdown Means For Food Safety

Food & Drink

The U.S. government shutdown continues to drag on, past 19 days today with no end in sight. One agency feeling the impact is the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for conducting routine food safety inspections in food production and food-processing facilities throughout the United States. Without federal funding, the FDA’s routine food safety inspections can’t be scheduled as usual.

Many American consumers remain anxious about the safety of their food supply after the multiple E coli outbreaks in romaine lettuce and salmonella contamination in beef that occurred last year. The news that the FDA doesn’t have the funding to continue these routine food safety inspections has many American consumers on edge.

Without federal funding, the FDA’s routine food safety inspections can’t be scheduled as usual. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

While the romaine outbreaks seem to have prompted more food safety awareness, what consumers might not realize is just how few inspections take place on a regular basis. Americans may assume the federal government regularly inspects all food in production, but that’s not possible, even with a fully funded FDA.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb offered further comment about how the shutdown is affecting food safety inspections on Twitter, pointing out that no inspections would have taken place over the Christmas and New Year holidays anyway, regardless of the shutdown. According to Gottlieb, this is the first week inspections aren’t being scheduled as usual. At most, he continued, the FDA failed to schedule around 20 inspections out of the 8,400 it conducts annually.

These food safety inspections are conducted at a sampling of facilities at random, which means only a small number of operations are ever checked during any given week. This has led many food system observers to argue that even when the government is operating as usual, the FDA doesnt have the proper funding or staffing to conduct a sufficient number of food safety inspections, as evidenced by the multiple foodborne illness outbreaks the food system experienced last year.

Congress did approve funding for ongoing inspections of imported food, though it failed to include domestic inspections in that allocation. In addition, the USDA continues to inspect the meat, poultry and processed egg facilities that fall under its purview, though the federal inspectors doing this work are doing so without pay. Plenty of companies also insist on their own inspections, though the quality of that inspection will depend on the thoroughness of that company’s practices. 

Some food processing facilities are categorized by the FDA as “high risk” for foodborne disease outbreaks, like facilities that process seafood and soft cheeses, for example. Gottlieb has said he is taking steps to try and reinstate inspections for these high-risk facilities as soon as possible, but that will mean these federal employees will have to work without pay, prompting Gottlieb to look for creative solutions like allowing for travel to be billed directly to the agency rather than reimbursing the funds to the employee at a later date, as NBC News has reported.

Ultimately, the longer the shutdown drags on, the more difficult it will be for essential federal employees to carry out their jobs without pay. The shutdown threatens regulatory protections for the food system already in place, as insufficient as they may be.

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