As the US government shutdown enters day 10 with no resolution in sight, it is important to look at the effects that it is having on food safety. The Association of Public Health Laboratories’ food safety director, Shari Shea, noted that during the shutdown there “isn’t going to be anyone working to figure out what food made people sick and get it off the shelves.” … “You can only do so much with a skeleton staff.” Although the US Dept. of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service will continue staffing every meat production facility with full-time inspectors, it is the FDA that oversees a vast majority of the country’s food industry. Disturbingly, the bulk of the FDA’s food inspectors have been deemed non-essential, so will inspect only a select number of food facilities until Congress and the president agree on a bill to fund the federal government. The only inspectors that have continued to work are the inspectors funded through state budgets.
In 2011, the FDA inspected approximately 20,000 food facilities for compliance with food safety regulations. This translates to about 80 facilities per day which means that for every day that the US government is shutdown, 80 food facilities will go without a federal inspection. Being that we are up to day 10, 800 food facilities have not been inspected so far.
You may be asking yourself, “Why are inspections so important?” Inspections uncover food safety conditions that can cause serious outbreaks of foodborne illness. These conditions include mold, illegal drug residue, insects, and many other risks to human health. While it is impossible to accurately state that consumers WILL get sick during the shutdown, the threat of random inspections that keep food producers vigilant will be absent which will logically increase the likelihood of foodborne illnesses.
Meanwhile, seafood is in a uniquely stable position because it does not rely on just one inspector because of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). HACCP accounts for the critical control points all along the seafood chain, from origin to sale. However, the real impact on seafood will be that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is not operating which will have negative impacts for many months post-shutdown. The reason for this is that NOAA’s Fisheries Service conducts stock assessments that provide fisheries management officials with information used in determining the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for a given fishery. This disruption in data collection can have immense impacts on the ability of fisheries to set a TAC at a sustainable level.
So now we wait and see if the US government can finally come to an agreement, while we carefully pick through our grocery stores hoping that what we purchase is safe.