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‘Essential’ food safety inspections continue during shutdown

Whether Congressional gremlins working in the wee hours of the morning agreed to call off the partial government shutdown or whether they’ve allowed it to spill into Monday morning, one thing won’t change.

Inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be showing up for work at the nation’s 6,200 meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants.

Out of the 9,275 full-time jobs at USDA’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) 8,240 provide continuous inspection services for meat and poultry producers.

Only meat and poultry produced with USDA inspection personnel present may be sold or exported for human consumption. If the inspection personnel did not show up for work during a government shutdown, it would have the effect of shutting down the meat, poultry, egg, and catfish production.

That’s why, like the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) who poke into your stuff at the airport, the jobs FSIS inspection personnel do are considered “essential” under government shutdown rules. And like TSA, their next paychecks might be delayed

Over at the Food and Drug Administration things are a bit different. FDA does not provide continuous inspection services. For one thing, the 80 percent of the food industry falling under FDA jurisdiction is just too big to have FDA inspection personnel always on site for continuous inspection.

FDA instead does routine, unannounced inspections. During these partial government shutdowns, FDA likely ceases routine checks while using its “essential” personnel on problems that arise.

The government shutdown contingency plan provides for 58 percent of FDA’s 17,000 employees to continue their essential work.

The bottom line is that both USDA and FDA have now had enough experience in working through government shutdowns that the public is unlikely to notice much.

But inspections are only a slice of the federal government’s food safety pie. Another area of concern is the staffing of government laboratories like those at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

In 2013, Dr. Tom Frieden, the the CDC director, said that government shutdown “was like a scene from a science fiction movie — empty labs and offices at CDC.”

The question this time is whether CDC is going to staff the labs with enough personnel to both pursue one of the most deadly flu seasons on record, and continue research on foodborne illnesses.

© Food Safety News