The government shutdown impacted more than most people would think, including, as Sarah Macdissi noted in her last post, food safety. During the government shutdown, all inspections of domestic food except meat and poultry were halted: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention furloughed more than two-thirds of its workers. What did this mean? No issuing of daily updates on global outbreaks to world health officials; 9 of 10 global disease detection systems closed; and a closed disease and outbreak hotline. The CDC was eventually forced to recall 30 furloughed workers to deal with a salmonella outbreak that affected 18 states.
Further, the Food and Drug Administration dropped from inspecting 200 plants per week to none. About 45 percent of the FDA’s staff was furloughed. The FDA will not say what percentage of imported food is now inspected, only that is below the usual 2 percent.
The meat and poultry hot line at the Department of Agriculture that consumers usually call for information about food safety or to report problems was also closed. At the CDC, approximately 68 percent of the staff was furloughed, including workers who oversee and track food-borne illness. Even though the agency brought back a small number of workers to handle the salmonella outbreak, they were “down to a skeleton crew” according to Barbara Reynolds, a center spokeswoman. At that level, an agency official told Food Safety News, monitoring multiple disease outbreaks became “untenable.”
According to the Department of Health and Human Services Contingency Plan, “FDA will be unable to support the majority of its food safety … activities. FDA will also have to cease safety activities such as routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports, notification programs … and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making.”
The government shutdown had the potential to lead to serious problems with the nation’s safety and food supply. Whether any serious and lasting consequences will result remains to be seen. In the meantime, be wary of what you eat.