Government Shutdown Slows FDA Food Inspections - What It Means For You

The partial government shutdown began on Dec. 22, 2018, when Congress was not able to reach a settlement with President Donald Trump for building a southern border wall. Ever since Trump has long endorsed to have a wall built with Mexico, (which he highlighted during the 2016 campaign) Republicans on Capitol Hill never was fully on board with the plan. And now, they are less likely to round up the votes in favor of it after losing the House majority in the November 2018 election.

President Trump has refused his Democratic opponents’ agreement of $1.6 billion to fund border security. Due to this reason, an estimated 800,000 federal employees has been put on unpaid leave. Federal agencies that were affected include:

  • Airport Security

  • Parks and Museums

  • Science, Research, and Public Health

  • Food Inspections and Aid

  • Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Veterans Affairs

  • Law Enforcement and the Judiciary

  • Criminal Investigations

  • Internal Revenue Service

  • Violence Against Women Act

How Food Safety Is Affected

The partial government shutdown has adversely impacted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s food safety efforts.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is run by the health department, whose mission is to:

“be responsible for protecting public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, and medical devices; and by ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation”.

The USA Today reported the FDA's claims that it cannot keep track of as many “routine regulatory and compliance activities,” due to the shutdown. This will affect a variety of agency functions which include monitoring outbreaks, publicizing recalls, and regulating food inspections. Since no future date has been set to end the shutdown, public concerns heighten due to their fear of a food-borne illness outbreak. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food-borne diseases in the United States kill 3,000 people annually and send an estimated128,000 people to the hospital.

How Does the Shutdown Impact the Foods We Eat?

Jackie Arnett Elnahar, the CEO of TelaDietitian and a registered dietician, advises that until the FDA is able to effectively conduct inspections and monitor recalls, it is important to avoid processed meats and raw foods due to possible contamination. Vegetables such as broccoli, alfalfa sprouts, and romaine lettuce in particular, are at high risk to E. coli.

Ground beef should be avoided since it uses the meat of different animals. Opt for bigger-piece meats that are less likely to be contaminated, such as steak,” advises Elnahar. “It is also very important to eat less raw vegetables at this time and to cook more. Cooking foods thoroughly at 165 degrees Fahrenheit can kill E. coli, salmonella, and listeria.”

Prior to the shutdown, the FDA issued out several food recall notices along with other safety bulletins. For right now, personnel who are continuing to work without pay include Inspection Service inspectors (monitoring high-risk foods and facilities only) and the USDA's Food Safety. Private businesses are required by law to shut down their operations if there are no government inspectors on the job.

Food-borne illness lawyer, Bill Marler, has been litigating food poisoning cases since 1993. He states that “The FDA is underfunded and understaffed, with respect, to inspect before furloughing people. They don’t get to as many high-risk factories and processing groups as they should anyway, so to cut back even more certainly raises enormous concerns.”

Marler holds the same opinion as Elnahar regarding foods to refrain from and provided other suggestions.

“Avoid any foods a consumer can’t cook,” he stated. “Or any ready-to-eat products that likely contain pathogens, like cheeses, deli meats, leafy greens or sprouts. Anything that doesn’t have a ‘kill step’ involved, avoid it until the shutdown is over.”

Dr. Andrew Rosenberg is a former official with the seafood inspection program controlled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He is also the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Dr. Rosenberg spoke with the New York Times and suggested that consumers stay clear from eating shellfish during the government shutdown.

In an updated Twitter thread, FDA Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, announced that additional personnel was recalled on Tuesday, January 15, 2019, to help with conducting high-risk inspections. Gottlieb noted that the FDA delayed only a small number out of the 8,400 inspections that are conducted yearly.

Another recommendation is to follow your grocery store or supermarket on social media sites. If there is a recall on a certain product prior to its announcement by the FDA, you will be well-informed about it in advance.

Valerie lives in New York. As a health advocate, she shares tips and steps on maximizing nutrition, weight, and fitness goals to help others embrace a healthier lifestyle. She blogs at Halfmile Fitness.

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