The government shutdown is causing all kinds of grief, even with regard to the food that we eat. A large part of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) staff has been furloughed. Approximately 45% of the workers, including routine food inspectors, have been told to shut off their government-issued cell phones, to refrain from accessing their government email accounts, and to stay home. Most of the agency’s daily activities have come to an abrupt halt, and will remain that way until an agreement is reached in Washington and a budget is passed.
What exactly does that mean to us as consumers? More than 90% of the imported seafood that we eat is not being inspected. Other imports, such as 50% of fruit and 20% of vegetables, are not being inspected as well.
We can be grateful that there are some inspections being facilitated by state and local agencies, but if there is an outbreak of food-borne illness, it will be a real problem with the federal arm down. Instituting a food recall, which involves coordination of efforts between multiple public agencies, will be extremely difficult to carry out.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) will not be impacted as significantly due to the shutdown and will continue to monitor meat and poultry production. Meat and poultry plants are not allowed to operate without the presence of a USDA inspector on site. Likewise, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is still up and running, as they are funded in a different manner. They are continuing to conduct their seafood inspection program.
The FDA will maintain some emergency services, but with routine inspections at a standstill, every day puts our food supply at greater risk. This stoppage means the FDA will be unable to respond quickly to any emergencies. Also, in the event of a food-borne illness emergency, it’s important to note that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is operating at minimal capacity, as they are directly impacted by the shutdown. As a result, the CDC has had to pause all influenza tracking.
Food-borne illness is already a problem, and people are becoming sick. An alert was issued on October 8th due to an outbreak of sickness tracked back to chicken products from the Foster Farm facility in California. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which is a division of the USDA, is monitoring the situation.
As for medical products, the FDA will continue to monitor and regulate with a reduced staff. During the shutdown, the FDA will not have the capability to collect FY2014 fees, meaning it won’t be able to accept or process new drug applications unless a fee was collected before October 1st. They are continuing to review medical product applications, but if resources diminish, this will most likely be suspended as well. Previously scheduled advisory committee meetings will continue through October.
In an effort to avoid passing a comprehensive budget agreement, and to placate certain constituencies, Republicans in the House of Representatives have been voting to restore funding to certain divisions of government, including the FDA, but this piecemeal approach will never get through the Senate. While no one is sending out any major alarms yet, rest assured that the longer this shutdown continues, the worse it will get with relation to the food that we eat every day.
- Andrews J. Federal government shutdown: impact on food safety may compound over time. Food Safety News Web site. October 3, 2013. http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2013/10/gov-shutdowns-impact-on-food-safety-may-compound-over-time/#.UldWJBBkjhU.
- Pogorelc D. Here’s what the FDA is and isn’t doing during the government shutdown. Med City News Web site. October 8, 2013. http://medcitynews.com/2013/10/heres-fda-isnt-shutdown/.
- Velasco S. Government shutdown halts FDA food inspections. Should you worry? The Christian Science Monitor Web site. October 3, 2013. http://www.csmonitor.com/Business/Government-shutdown-halts-FDA-food-inspections.-Should-you-worry-video.