The federal government’s shutdown is touching the lives of more than its furloughed employees. From issues reported at national parks to potential delays in processing upcoming tax returns, the shutdown is creeping into the lives of every American. Now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reporting that they have suspended routine food inspections.
What’s Been Affected So Far
FDA director Dr. Scott Gottlieb said the agency has halted routine safety inspections of seafood, fruits and vegetables and other foods due the federal government’s shutdown. The FDA oversees nearly 80 percent of the food supply in the United States. Their inspectors visit about 160 food processing and manufacturing plants per week. More than 30 percent of those are considered to be at high risk of causing food-borne illnesses. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food-borne diseases are responsible for well over 100,000 hospital visits each year in the U.S., with some 3,000 deaths reported annually.
Not all inspections have ceased. The agency said 100 percent of foods imported from other countries continue to be inspected and that critical functions, such as monitoring outbreaks of food poisoning, have not been affected. Sampling of some frozen foods has also continued. The Department of Agriculture handles inspections of meat and poultry products and they report that 89 percent of their food safety employees are still on the job, though they are not being paid. Also, restaurants are overseen by local health agencies and are not affected by the federal shutdown.
Officials Aren’t Overly Concerned — Yet
While admitting the situation is not ideal, officials say there is not a big need for public concern at this point. Director Gottlieb said the FDA is working to bring back about 150 employees to inspect foods that represent higher risks to the public, such as cheese products, infant formula and fresh produce. He’s hopeful this could happen as early as next week.
Sarah Sorscher, from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the FDA’s suspension of routine food inspections isn’t an immediate cause for concern, but will be if the shutdown continues. “That’s more and more issues they’re potentially not catching,” she said. In addition to missed inspections, a long-term shutdown could impede the agency’s ability to implement new food safety standards, according to Sorscher.
Officials remain optimistic that an agreement between political leaders will be reached to end the shutdown and stress that there’s no need for the public to worry about the safety of their at this point. However, it’s a story that bears watching if the shutdown continues.