ALERT: A USDA spokesperson told Food Safety News the agency is not staffing its phones dedicated to consumer complaints about meat, poultry and processed egg products during the partial government shutdown. The service is operating online, but USDA responses might be delayed.

The head of the Food and Drug Administration has taken some good steps toward restoring food safety inspections as the partial government shutdown approaches the one month mark, but without a budget deal between Congress and the President, advocates say his path is at a dead end.

During a briefing yesterday for the Congressional Food Safety Caucus, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, and consumer advocates said the shutdown has already put important activities on hold — including a special FDA testing program for romaine lettuce.

Thomas Gremillion of the Consumer Federation of America said with the suspension of some of FDA’s activities, food companies are in a cat’s away situation.

“Businesses know there aren’t any unannounced inspections happening now,” Gremillion said. “The incentive structure is being eroded.”

Gremillion said he was encouraged by FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s Tweets this week announcing that some of the agency’s inspections, including it’s checks of high-risk imported food, would resume. However, Gremillion said, the FDA’s shutdown plan already called for the high-risk import inspections to continue.

About 60 percent of the FDA’s employees have not been furloughed, but Gremillion said the impact of the partial shutdown is hitting the food side of the agency harder than the drug side. That’s because operations on the medicine side of the agency are supported by user fees, a luxury the food programs do not enjoy.

Like Gremillion, Sarah Sorscher from the Center for Science in the Public Interest credited the FDA’s Gottlieb for staying on the job, saying his Tweets have become one of her few sources of information out of the agency during the partial shutdown. Some things, though, she knows even without the benefit of social media.

Sorscher said the partial shutdown is disrupting a variety of activities at the FDA and the USDA. Those include training about the Food Safety Modernization Act; issuance of guidance for industry on a variety of food safety regulations; and progress on requirements for grocery stores regarding when and where to post food recall notices. 

She also cited stalled work related to high profile foodborne illness outbreaks in 2018 linked to romaine lettuce and ground beef. 

A special FDA testing program for romaine lettuce in the wake of two 2018 outbreaks — one of them that included at least five deaths — is likely not going to begin during the shutdown. Another stalled romaine project at the FDA is the agency’s work with industry to improve the ability to trace romaine back to its origin.

Sorscher pointed to the Salmonella outbreak identified in 2018 and traced to ground beef as another case in point. The outbreak spurred one of the largest beef recalls ever and illustrated the need for USDA to move forward with plans regarding new production standards to reduce Salmonella in ground beef. Discussions about the pathogen’s status in the eyes of the law are on hold.

Tony Corbo of the consumer watchdog group Food and Water Watch said the implications for the general public in terms of the shutdown’s impact on food safety are only part of the picture. He said the promise of back pay after the shutdown ends isn’t helping USDA inspectors who have been working for free since the shutdown began on Dec. 22.

Some of the USDA inspectors cover multiple slaughter plants and must drive from place to place to do their jobs. Corbo said those who don’t have government vehicles or government fuel cards are finding it difficult to pay for gas and other expenses. If they don’t show up at the slaughter plants, though, the businesses have to slow or stop production.

Corbo said he is in touch with the unions representing the food safety inspectors and that leaders had assured him earlier in the shutdown and again on Wednesday that the organizations are not contemplating any actions such as those taken by security staff at some airports.

“If there was an organized sick out, the union could lose its certification,” Corbo said. “Just today they told me again they don’t have any plans for anything like that.”

Rosa DeLauro

Rep. DeLauro has long been a champion for food safety programs. She said Wednesday that the “essence of food safety” has been one of the most difficult messages to communicate during the partial government shutdown. It’s one of those areas that isn’t in the spotlight until something goes wrong.

She cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48 million people in the United States are stricken by foodborne illness every year. Food poisoning causes 3,000 deaths because of food poisoning, according to the CDC.

“I was in a committee hearing with an individual who said given the U.S. population, 3,000 isn’t very many,” DeLauro said, adding that she didn’t think that was an excuse for lax food safety laws and enforcement.

“Food safety is something we need to talk about so people understand the repercussions of this shutdown.” 

Clarification: The article has been revised to clarify coverage of comments from Sarah Sorscher of the Center for Science in the Public Interest regarding Salmonella in ground beef.

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