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Food Safety Agencies Prep for Possible Shutdown

As high-level budget negotiations stalled, leaving government shutdown at midnight a real possibility, federal food safety agencies began releasing details on their contingency plans.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Thursday indicated that the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which maintains a constant presence in meat and poultry plants across the country, will continue inspections in a shutdown scenario. The plan to classify FSIS inspectors as “essential personnel” would keep approximately 8,000 inspectors in 6,200 processing facilities. Management and non-inspection personnel would likely be furloughed, along with much of the rest of USDA.

Just before the news broke–first announced by the North American Meat Processors Association (NAMP) in a member alert and confirmed by The Hagstrom Report (subscription only) Thursday morning–meat industry groups pressed President Obama to clarify the issue.

“As the possibility of a government shutdown becomes more real so does the threat to the industry’s ability to provide a critical component of the food supply,” American Meat Institute President J. Patrick Boyle wrote in a letter to the president, which was also circulated on Capitol Hill.

Boyle pointed out that in past shutdowns the White House Office of Management and Budget  “deemed essential those employees whose ‘activities [are] essential to ensure continued public health and safety, including safe use of food, drugs, and hazardous materials.’”

According to AMI, if a shutdown kept inspectors out of plants, it would impact 3.7 million jobs and cause a loss of approximately $3 billion per day. Meat and poultry plants are not legally able to operate without the benefit of USDA inspection.

NAMP yesterday reassured its members that FSIS would continue to allow meat and poultry operations by keeping inspectors on the job.

“That is a fix, but not a solution,” NAMP’s executive director Phil Kimball told Food Safety News. “Any shutdown, especially if prolonged, threatens to disrupt the orderly work of USDA. This harms the industries with which it works. Management and others deemed ‘non-essential’ will be away from their work.  Who answers the phone now at USDA headquarters and regional offices?”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not released much detail on its shutdown plan. An anonymous FDA official told CNN Money that the agency’s operations would be “severely limited” in the event of federal shutdown.

According to the source, FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs will continue to operate but at limited capacity with “some inspectors on staff.” In the event of a foodborne illness outbreak, FDA will be able to call in furloughed staff, according to CNN.

Efforts to monitor radiation in the U.S. food supply, both imported from Japan and produced domestically, will reportedly not be affected by any potential staffing changes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not return inquires about their contingency plan for possible shutdown.

Correction: This article has been corrected to note that USDA did not formally announce the shutdown plan, the North American Meat Processors Association was the first to announce that FSIS inspectors would be designated essential.

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