As the U.S. enters the third day of a federal government shutdown, meat inspectors at the U.S. Department of Agriculture will continue performing their duties uninterrupted, while inspectors at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – which oversees 80 percent of the food supply – have been asked to turn in their government cell phones and not even check their work email until Congress passes a budget.
The furloughing of food-safety workers at both FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may not do much to jeopardize food safety in the short term, but some experts say that the food system may face greater risk the longer the shutdown goes on.
While USDA technically oversees a smaller percentage of the nation’s food supply – specifically meat, poultry and eggs – its inspectors are required by law to be present in every meat-processing facility or the plant can’t operate. By comparison, FDA inspectors typically audit facilities under their jurisdiction once every several years.
Of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service’s approximately 10,000 employees, roughly 6,500 are meat inspectors, while another 1,000 are public-health veterinarians also stationed in meat plants, said Dr. Richard Raymond, the agency’s former Undersecretary for Food Safety. This means about three-quarters of all FSIS jobs are in the inspection realm and cannot be furloughed by law. Another sizable percentage of essential administrators are also not being furloughed, leaving a small pool of employees eligible to be sent home during a shutdown.
Unlike removing meat inspectors from meat facilities, furloughing FDA inspectors will not shut down production of the foods FDA oversees, such as produce and seafood.
For as long as the shutdown goes on, however, FDA inspectors are not available to perform routine inspection of any production facilities or inspect food imports. While only a small percentage of those foods typically receive inspection, that percentage will be zero until the budget passes and the inspectors return to work.
The current shutdown also means that FDA does not have personnel available to investigate outbreaks and perform tracebacks through the supply chain on foods suspected of sickening people. Of course, CDC also had to furlough its epidemiological staff, meaning the agency will not be available to support state health departments and coordinate investigations into multi-state foodborne outbreaks.
Raymond noted that leads to a situation where the food supply isn’t necessarily any less safe than it is when the government is fully operational, but that our capacity to detect and investigate foodborne illness outbreaks has all but dropped off the map.
“I’m not worried about the food I eat,” he said, “but I am worried about what will happen if we have an outbreak.”
All in all, FDA has furloughed roughly 45 percent of its staff, nearly all on the food side of the agency. Most of FDA’s work on drugs remains operational because of financial support from fee systems.
“If there’s a food outbreak or some recall or food emergency, it’s not being responded to,” said John Guzewich, former senior advisor for environmental health in FDA’s Office of Food Defense, Communication and Emergency Response.
“Ongoing investigations have stopped,” Guzewich continued. “That means they’re not communicating with sister agencies – the USDA and FDA – and they’re not communicating with state departments.”
Guzewich said he was not certain if ongoing tests of food samples in FDA laboratories would immediately cease, but he was confident that no new samples would be accepted for testing during the shutdown.
Perhaps more concerning, he said, is that long-term research projects at FDA could become compromised if research is put on hiatus.
“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.”
While some personnel at FDA may be inclined to work without pay in such situations, Guzewich said that staff members at his former department were instructed on Monday to turn in their government cell phones and cease contact via government email until the end of the shutdown period.
There were several outbreak investigations going on before the shutdown, and all have been suspended, he said.
Health and agriculture departments on the state level are still available to perform their own testing and outbreak investigations, but, until Congress passes a budget, the federal government is not available to help coordinate and support those efforts.
And, the longer they’re out of work, the longer the feds will need to play catch-up.
“It’s not just a question of throwing a light switch,” Guzewich said. “Everyone’s got to get back into the groove.”© Food Safety News