The government shutdown is far more than irritating political theater — it’s now posing a threat to the safety of America’s food.
Food inspectors and the scientists that track down infectious diseases are among the federal employees that are being furloughed.
“If there’s a food outbreak or recall or food emergency, it’s not being responded to,” John Guzewich of the FDA’s Office of Food Defense, Communication and Emergency response admitted.
Food inspectors at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA ) have been furloughed, and those officials oversee 80 percent of the food sold in the United States. Around 45 percent of the FDA’s staff – mostly all of them food inspectors – have been furloughed. In other words, nearly every FDA food inspector is not working.
“Ongoing investigations have stopped,” Guzewich told reporters. “That means that they’re not communicating with sister agencies and they’re not communicating with state departments.”
Salmonella Outbreak During Shutdown
Some food inspectors are still on the job. Meat inspectors that work for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Inspection Service (FSIS) are still working. That means the meat being shipped to American supermarkets is still being inspected but others foods are not.
But imported food is not being inspected.
Richard Raymond, the USDA’s former undersecretary for food safety, said when the shutdown started that he’d be “worried about what will happen if we have an outbreak.” That now has happened.
The USDA issued a warning about a salmonella outbreak in Foster Farms chicken on the West Coast on Oct. 7, with a total of 278 people in 18 states having fallen ill. The outbreak is continuing, the USDA said.
During shutdowns, federal departments do not have enough personnel employed to investigate outbreaks, Food Safety News reported. Local and state officials presumably are doing much of the legwork.
Nation Unprepared for Epidemic
The Center for Disease Control’s PulseNet database normally has eight people tracking pathogen outbreaks. Five of them are now on furlough because of the shutdown , National Public Radio reported.
What’s truly frightening is that the CDC is currently tracking 30 clusters of foodborne illnesses in the United States. The man in charge of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, Chris Braden is worried that his staff cannot keep up with the outbreaks.
“We are focusing on those areas that we have identified at greatest risk, but it does concern me that we could miss something,” Braden said. Braden has the authority to bring people back to respond to an emergency, but a response would be delayed.
“If an outbreak does occur during this government shutdown, it’s likely it’s going to go on longer and affect more people,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The FDA’s John Guzewich said research projects examining the safety of food also could take a hit.
“I don’t know what they’re being told to do, but you might have a piece of research that you’ve been working on for years or months, and, if you don’t come in, you could blow away months and months of work,” Guzewich  added. “Hypothetically, you could ruin a big research project.”