- The government shutdown is now in its 24th day.
- As part of the shutdown, Food and Drug Administration is not conducting many food-inspection duties.
- The US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is still operational, but employees are not getting paid.
- According to Bill Marler, an attorney specializing in food-poisoning outbreaks, these changes could lead to problems including more outbreaks of food poisoning.
The government shutdown could lead to a perhaps unexpected negative consequence: more food-poisoning outbreaks.
With the fight over President Donald Trump’s demands for a wall along the US-Mexico border dragging on into a record-shattering 24th day, some food-safety functions of the US government are going untended. According to some experts, the shutdown’s effects should make Americans concerned about food-poisoning outbreaks.
Two major agencies oversee food-safety inspections in the US: the Food and Drug Administration, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services; and the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a division of the US Department of Agriculture.
The FSIS oversees inspections of meat, poultry, and eggs, while the FDA looks after the rest.
According to the USDA’s shutdown plan, FSIS employees are deemed “essential,” and inspections conducted by the agency will continue. But employees carrying out those inspections are not paid.
By contrast, the FDA’s plan determined that while limited inspections would continue during the shutdown – such as inspections of imported foods – a majority of food operations would be shut down.
“FDA would be unable to support some routine regulatory and compliance activities,” the FDA plan said. “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.”
In addition, the FDA deemed that employees responsible for responding to outbreaks of foodborne illness were essential. But those measures are for response, rather than the inspections that could prevent an outbreak.
“I’d say you should be very worried about your food safety, in part because the work that’s not being done right now is the work that’s needed to prevent the next outbreak of foodborne illness,” Sarah Sorscher, a deputy director of regulatory affairs at the consumer watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Public Radio International.
According to the FDA’s plan, 41% of all employees are on furlough, meaning the workers are not receiving pay and are barred from coming to work. Only 11% of FSIS workers are furloughed in that agency’s plan.
Following public concerns about food safety, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb tweeted Sunday that the agency is reassessing its shutdown plan and will bring back some employees to work on food safety operations. The change, Gottlieb said, was due to the unprecedented length of the funding lapse.
“Given the prolonged shutdown and compounding risk as time accrues; FDA is working to operationalize additional activities that exceed what we’ve done in past shutdown situations,” the FDA Commissioner tweeted.
According to Gottlieb, the resumed activities include expanded “for-cause” inspections, increased sampling of high-risk food and drugs, and more. It was not immediately clear how many employees this change will affect.
But even those FSIS and FDA employees who are still on the job are facing financial woes because of the lack of pay. Unpaid employees in other agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration, are said to be calling in sick in large numbers, and problems in those departments are adding up.
In its shutdown plan, the FSIS said problems with safety would worsen as a shutdown dragged on.
“A lengthy hiatus would affect the safety of human life and have serious adverse effects on the industry, the consumer and the Agency,” the report said.
Bill Marler, an attorney specializing in food-poisoning outbreaks who has won more than $600 million for clients in foodborne-illness cases, pointed out that the real possibility of not receiving a paycheck on January 15 was also most likely affecting the inspectors remaining on the job.
“Seriously, can we expect, as the shutdown stumbles into week two, that inspectors’ focus are solely on preventing the next E. coli, Salmonella or Listeria outbreak?” Marler wrote in a blog post.
When asked by Business Insider what people could do to avoid another food-poisoning outbreak, Marler had just one suggestion.
“Call and write the president,” Marler said in an email.