With the government shut down entering its 18th day, the third longest of twenty-one shutdowns on record, people are starting to wonder what that means for agencies like the FDA and USDA. There have been highly publicized effects of the shutdown, like the trash in public parks or the Federal employees getting a jump start on applying for unemployment benefits. But every unfunded agency had to make some difficult calls as they prepared for the possibility of shut down. Many services are invisible to the public eye until they fail. Wonder what that means for our food? Here is how the government shutdown effects food safety.
The FDA and the USDA are the agencies which are responsible for regulating the integrity of our food supply; they are kind of important and—at the moment—only partially functional.
What really happens in a shut down?
The parts of the government which have not yet received funding from Congress, though an appropriations bill, have to shut down. Sort of. Due to the complexities of services provided, and the reality of operational mandate, various government agencies must make a plan for how to keep the world from utterly grinding to a halt or the country being vulnerable while the elected officials sort things out. Agencies must choose which functions are important enough to exempt from furlough. This means they require a skeleton crew to continue coming to work even though they cannot pay them until some form of budget is passed allowing these exempt staff to be paid. Because of when this particular shut down fell in the pay cycle, no one has missed a paycheck yet. But if the shut down continues, they may.
The skeleton crew protecting you
You’ll be happy know that the USDA’s food safety division, Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is continuing inspections of the country’s meat, siluriform (catfish and similar fish), poultry, and egg supplies. According to the USDA-Food Safety and Inspection Service Operations Plan for “Absence of Appropriations,” the “daily on-site inspection presence, regulatory enforcement and product testing in the laboratories” will continue because they are “necessary to protect life.” FSIS works hard to combat the spread of E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, and Campylobacter
Essentially, the inspectors continue reporting to work as usual. Except without any non-exempt support personal, and with the real possibility that their next paycheck will be late, or never come. Traditionally, when Congress gets around to passing a budget, they back pay everyone—both the furloughed workers and the exempt staff. Since they must vote on it and trust for elected officials is never all that high there is always anxiety that they will not pay the government staff, which in turn whips the media into a fervor.
In contrast to the USDA, the FDA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), will be suspending most of its enforcement activities. HHS has furloughed roughly 24% of its staff. They are keeping up some research, inspecting imported foods, emergency monitoring and response for toxic chemical exposures, hazardous leaks and spills, environmentally related poisons, as well as acts of terror or natural disasters. Other major projects were not affected by this shut down.
The FDA is continuing activities supported by user fees, as well as emergency response and criminal and civil investigations. This includes continuing to review data to determine potential health risks, manage high risk recalls, food-borne illness or other outbreaks. Inspections, as stated, are largely on hold. “FDA would be unable to support some routine regulatory and compliance activities. This includes some medical product, animal drug, and most food related activities. FDA will also pause routine establishment inspections, cosmetics and nutrition work, and many ongoing research activities.” These are the inspections looking for insects, E. coli, and Salmonella, among other things, in facilities processing romaine lettuce, and cake batter.
The FDA is poised to manage any outbreaks, but no longer poised to prevent them. As you can imagine, they aren’t any happier about it than you are.
According the Washington Post, the FDA oversees roughly 80% of the country’s food supply. The FDA is currently working on a plan to reinstate some inspections as early as next week regardless of funding. They hope to resume inspecting higher risk facilities, such as those with a history of problems, or those which process seafood, vegetables, or soft cheeses. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in an interview that after cancelling fifty high risk inspections he is seeking authority to bring 150 furloughed inspectors back to work.
Again, this would inspectors reporting to work, now exempt from furlough, but still receiving no paycheck until Congress passes a budget.
This is hardly an ideal situation. Risk management has been thrown into disarray.
What can you do?
You can and should contact your legislators to encourage them to reach a compromise quickly, so they keep the country out of danger. This might result in a quicker resolution to the stalemate. In the meantime, you can also exercise caution when cooking and shopping.
Inspections are ongoing for meat, siluriformes, poultry, and eggs, but not for soft cheeses, shellfish, and other processed foods. Even if you normally cheat a little and swipe some raw cookie dough or brownie batter, don’t do it right now. Without facility inspections, the probability of infected flour is higher.
Cook as much of your food as possible. Raw vegetables are an excellent nutrition source, and if you are able to source them locally or from an otherwise trusted provider, that’s fantastic. Otherwise, this might be a great time to just cook all your vegetables. Conveniently, it’s winter, so most of the country is experiencing cold weather and cooking and eating hot veggies isn’t the burden it would be in summer. Many soft cheeses are also good cooked, so if you have a burning need for soft cheese after the shutdown, you should check out some recipes before taking the plunge (baked brie, for example, is great).
Make sure you are familiar with the safe food temperatures provided by the FDA, and also with some of the basic symptoms and high-risk groups for food borne illnesses. Since all the agencies are still staffing emergency response, still keep the packaging of guilty food items and report any illness. (You can call the USDA at 1-888-674-6854 if you think the illness was caused by meat, poultry or eggs. You can call the FDA at 1-866-300-4374 for all other foods.)
By: Abigail Cossette Ryan, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)