How the Government Shutdown Could Affect Food Safety

Here's what you need to know before your next trip to the grocery store.

Photo by: Aliaksandra Ivanova / EyeEm/Getty

Aliaksandra Ivanova / EyeEm/Getty

UPDATE (January 15, 2019): Beginning January 15, the Food and Drug Administration will resume inspections of some high risk foods, the New York Times reports.

Foodborne illness sickens 48 million people each year, hospitalizing about 128,000, and killing an estimated 3,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With the current government shutdown also comes a halt of routine inspection of domestic food-processing facilities, which is carried out by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Here's what that means for your groceries, and how you can minimize your risk of illness.

The Goverment Shutdown and Food Inspections

The FDA oversees 80 percent of the food supply, as well as many imported foods. The New York Times reports that Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the FDA commissioner, said that routine food safety inspections of seafood, fruit, vegetables and other high risk foods have been temporarily suspended due to the government shutdown. Normally, the FDA inspects an estimated 160 domestic manufacturing and food processing plants on a weekly basis. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for inspecting meat and poultry, which are still being inspected (without pay for the inspectors).

Inspectors work in conjunction with establishments like processing plants to ensure that the establishment is following procedure and to check samples which can help prevent foodborne illness outbreaks before they occur. According to Commissioner Gottlieb’s tweet on Wednesday “31% of our inventory of domestic inspections are considered high risk.” As of now, FDA inspectors aren’t actively checking for outbreaks in domestic food processing facilities, but companies can voluntarily make their own checks and the FDA is still announcing those recalls.

Commissioner Gottlieb tweeted late on Wednesday January 9th, “FDA’s ongoing work upholding food safety continues, even during this partial funding lapse. Our ability to monitor/respond to emerging food safety issues is maintained through efforts of a dedicated workforce that’s fully committed to this mission.”

What Happens Now?

The commissioner would like to call back about 10% of the inspectors to inspect high risk facilities including those with a history of safety issues for salmonella, listeria, or other potential harmful contaminants. However, that’s not as simple as it may seem. Some inspectors who may be at the bottom of the pay scale live from paycheck to paycheck. If they go back to work for no pay, they cannot file unemployment.

So What Should You Be Doing?

For now, there are definite holes being made in the safety of our food supply chain which can potentially lead to a foodbone illness outbreak. Good steps to take help minimize illness at home include cooking food to correct temperatures, refrigerating food properly, and avoiding cross-contamination. However, in order to keep our food supply as safe as possible we need to stay vigilant every step of the way from the processing plant to our table.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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