Food safety experts say the government shutdown is endangering America’s food supply because food inspections have halted except for meat and poultry and agencies on skeleton staff cannot properly deal with food safety issues like the current salmonella outbreak.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recalled some furloughed workers to deal with the salmonella outbreak that has sickened nearly 300 people in 18 states, federal agency offices across the country are mostly dark and empty. Inspectors, lab technicians, administrative and public information staff are on furlough during the battle over government spending, the New York Times reports. The salmonella outbreak has been traced to chicken products from three Foster Farms’ plants in California.
Meat and poultry inspections continue, but Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspections of other food—fruit, vegetables, and dairy products—has halted. In addition to fresh food inspections, the FDA normally inspects about 200 food-processing plants a week. The Agriculture Department’s meat and poultry information and problem hot line is closed and CDC staff who oversee a database that tracks foodborne illnesses are furloughed. The absence of staff members who identify clusters of infections like E coli and salmonella significantly reduces the CDC’s ability to respond to an outbreak, according to the Times. About 45 percent of the FDA staff is furloughed, though “F.D.A. is doing what it can under this difficult situation to protect public health,” a spokesperson said.
Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn), a longtime food safety advocate, worries that the combination of the shutdown and earlier budget cuts are “creating the potential for a real public health crisis.” And, according to the New York Times, food safety experts worry that health alerts are not reaching the public. Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, “The C.D.C. may have brought back some staffers, but their communications staff is working at reduced capacity and that’s a concern. The agency’s ability to get information out is limited.”