Should you be worried about the safety of your food during the government shutdown? The answer is complicated, and it depends who you ask.
“We are very concerned that the shutdown may lead to lapses in food safety, but we don’t know where or when these will happen,” said Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.
On Tuesday, the US Food and Drug Administration resumed some food safety inspections that had stopped since the government shutdown began on December 22. Inspectors who are back on the job are doing so without pay.
When asked what foods he won’t eat during the shutdown, food safety attorney Bill Marler said, “I would say anything you aren’t controlling yourself, so any fresh, uncooked products on the market place,” such as ready-to-eat salads and prepackaged sandwiches, or meals that aren’t cooked.
His list: “Sprouts, leafy greens, ready to eat products like cheese, ice cream. I would be especially suspect if you’re a pregnant woman, children, people with a compromised immune system. I would stay away from it completely.”
Marler is a food safety attorney who represents people who became sick or families of people who died from a foodborne illness. He represented clients whose cases led lawmakers to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act.
He says even when there isn’t a government shutdown, the FDA doesn’t have enough inspectors, noting that 80% of the food that falls under the jurisdiction of the FDA is inspected.
“We’re already at a deficit … when you’re cutting back anything at FDA you’re cutting back on a lot,” he said.
“I worry about those foods that are going to institutions like hospitals, like nursing homes … I worry about our most vulnerable consumers,” said Catherine Donnelly, a professor at the University of Vermont and expert on the microbiological safety of food.
However, she said her confidence in the safety of the US food supply is still high, even during the shutdown. The FDA is only one part of the safety system, she said.
“The FDA made it really clear that the responsibility for food safety lies with the companies,” she said. “They just have responsibility for oversight and determining whether there are violations. To a large extent, the job of food safety is already being done very well I think by the food industry at large.
“Consumers should continue to have confidence in those brand names that they trust and the willingness of companies to do the right thing in providing them with safe food.”
Hilary Thesmar, chief food and product safety officer at the Food Marketing Institute, an advocacy organization for the food retail industry, said that supply chain control requirements from grocers help keep the food system safe.
Grocers “have a lot of customer specifications and customer requirements on products that they buy,” she said.
But other consumer groups share Marler’s concern about the safety of the food supply during the shutdown, even with some furloughed inspectors going back to work.
“Our advice is for people to continue using common sense measures — that they should rinse off their vegetables, rinse off their fruits, cook their meat, don’t eat raw meats, and just do all the normal things that you should do all the time anyway and you should be just fine,” Alex Berezow, vice president of scientific affairs of the American Council on Science and Health, a pro-science consumer advocacy organization, said in an email. He added that there really isn’t any particular food that should be avoided and said, “If you have any doubts about food, throw it out.”
Lawmakers are also wondering about the food safety at this time. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, has a congressional caucus planned for Wednesday to, “highlight how the federal government shutdown is impacting the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) food safety programs.”
The FDA stopped some routine food safety inspections at the start of the government shutdown three weeks ago.
“We re-starting high risk food inspections as early as tomorrow. We’ll also do compounding inspections this week. And we started sampling high risk imported produce in the northeast region today. We’ll expand our footprint as the week progresses. Our teams are working,” Gottlieb said in a tweet Monday.
Last week, Gottlieb said the FDA was taking steps to “expand the scope of food safety surveillance inspections we’re doing during the shutdown to make sure we continue inspecting high risk food facilities.” He noted that “31% of our inventory of domestic inspections are considered high risk”; those are the inspections the agency is now trying to resume.
This applies to routine domestic surveillance inspections of foods including seafood, bakery products filled with custard, soft and semi-soft ripened cheese and cheese products, unpasteurized juices, fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, sandwiches and infant formula, among other food items.
“There is no question this has an impact, and it is not business as usual,” Gottlieb tweeted last week, adding, “There is a very concerted effort to stand up critical functions and to focus on our consumer protection mission, in many cases relying on excepted employees not being paid.”
The FDA said in a statement Tuesday, “The American food supply is among the safest in the world” and is “focused on maintaining core activities that directly impact consumer safety and save lives — including pertaining to food safety.” The agency also noted that it is working to expand inspections, monitoring and sampling beyond what has been done during previous government shutdowns.
Marler said that while the inspectors are dedicated and good at their jobs, it’s hard to stay focused when worried about paying bills.
“If people are understandably focused on economics rather than their jobs there’s bound to be a mistake whether it’s food safety or airline safety,” he said.
He worries something will fall through the cracks and notes that “the most important part [when it comes to outbreaks] is preventing the illness from occurring in the first place.”
That step of prevention can occur when a routine inspection identifies an illness causing pathogen such as E. coli or salmonella. But if inspections aren’t happening or are happening in a limited basis, that pathogen can then get into the food at the plant and potentially make someone sick.
“As more of these routine inspections pile up that have not been done, then there’s going to be a backlog issue that they’re going to have to address once the government gets up and running. But we don’t know when that’s going to happen,” said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the food campaign at the public interest advocacy group Food & Water Watch.
According to Gottlieb, the agency typically performs about 160 domestic food inspections per week when there isn’t a shutdown. The Department of Health and Human Services says 41% of all FDA employees are furloughed.
Not all inspections have been impacted by the shutdown. From the outset, the agency has said it continued to “inspect facilities when we believe an imminent threat to life and health exists.” That refers to inspections related to recalls, outbreaks and foods that are considered high risk because, for example, the manufacturers or facilities have a history of violations. In addition, all regular inspection of foods imported from outside the United States have also continued.
Meat, poultry and egg inspections are handled by the USDA. That agency is continuing inspections “to ensure the safety of human life.”
The FDA says consumers should always follow safe food handling and preparation practices to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.
“There is nothing individual consumers can do to protect themselves beyond pressing the president and Congress to get our food safety workers back on the job with the pay they deserve,” Sorscher said. “We acknowledge that as risks go, this isn’t that bad but as it drags on the worse the impact will be.
“I also don’t know how long they [food inspectors] go before they start protesting by not showing up to work.”