Come Sunday, Oct. 1, it seems just about everyone expects the government of the United States will run out of money or at least the authority to keep spending it.

And it all comes just ahead of a week that is feeling like a runaway bobsled with no one in control.

Shutdown Sunday will happen, which means federal food safety programs will cease normal operations and go into contingency modes. It will be the 22nd government shutdown since 1980.  The most recent time, in 2018, normal government operations were twice put on hold for a total of 36 days

Here’s what it could mean for food safety:

  • USDA’s shutdown contingency plans  call for the Food Safety and Inspection Service to continue “regulatory inspection of meat, poultry, and egg products that is mandated by law,” with nearly 7,700 of the agency’s 8,600 employees listed as “personnel essential to the functioning of food safety operations in the nation’s food supply.”  Federal meat inspection is required for regulated establishments to operate.
  • Health and Human Services’ shutdown contingency plans for its departments and its agencies, with the key excerpt for the FDA being: “In the event of a lapse of appropriation, 15,602 (81 percent) of FDA staff will be retained including 12,300 (64 percent) who are exempt (their activities or position are already funded or otherwise exempted) and 3,302 (17 percent) who are exempted (their activities are deemed necessary by implication, or for the safety of human life or protection of property).” 
  • At the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, it is estimated that half of the employees will be furloughed. Still, it is unclear how labs that identify pathogens involved in foodborne illness outbreaks might be impacted.

The FDA regulates about  80 percent of the U.S. food supply.

Former FDA Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas warns that a government shutdown jeopardizes food safety.  “Essential government services” only allowed the FDA to respond to foodborne outbreaks during the 2018-19 shutdown, he said, but prevented the FDA  from conducting proactive inspections.

One who has lost control of the budget bobsled is House Speaker Keven McCarthy. He cannot hold the razor-thin Republican majority together, and so far, the Speaker has opted not to work with Democrats on a deal to keep the government open. 

The Alliance for a Stronger FDA concluded that a government shutdown is a virtual certainty. From their report:  “The leading Republican position in the House – which does not yet have full caucus support – is a Continuing Resolution through October with massive short-term cuts and substantive and partisan border security provisions. None of that has even the remotest possibility of passing the Senate.  On that basis, a shutdown is virtually certain, and it is impossible (at this moment) to foresee how Congress will ever pass (Fiscal Year) FY 24 funding bills.”

This week, McCarty has his caucus voting on a series of appropriations bills, with any passed certain to be dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Further budget experts at the Alliance for a Stronger FDA see little if any hope for last minute deal or settlement

“Given the massive differences and the narrowing window, only a month-long CR (continuing resolution) with a standstill agreement could avoid a shutdown on October 1,” the Alliance reported. “That is how Congress usually buys itself time to resolve differences in funding bills. However, that approach has been thoroughly dismissed by the faction of House Republicans who have, in effect, said: we would rather close the government than vote for a CR.” 

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