The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency responsible for keeping the nation’s food safe, normaly inspects about 500 food facilities a week. But with the government shutdown in full effect, many of these operations — considered "non-essential" — have been halted, creating a window for foodborne illnesses to proliferate.
“Make no mistake: The safety of our food supply will suffer if agreement is not reached on a continuing resolution that funds,” Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Politico.
About 55 percent of the 14,779 FDA staff members are still working, including those who inspect meat products as well as officials responsible for drugs, tobacco, and other non-food industries. Further jeopardizing the nation's food safety, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who identify and track foodborne illnesses, are also out of work during the shutdown.
The government shutdown puts even more pressure on the FDA, which normally experiences difficulty managing such a large number of facilities. In fiscal year 2012, only 10,000 of the 167,000 domestic food manufacturers were inspected. Overseas, only 1,300 of the 254,000 facilities were inspected.
Meanwhile, PulseNet, a CDC program that tracks clusters of disease for unrecognized outbreaks, has only one staff member working through the shutdown, down from eight. “They’re monitoring clusters of potential food outbreaks — the things that really get attention in the news. That’s the stuff that could have the biggest potential risk for our food supply,” Alan Bjerga, an agricultural policy reporter for Bloomberg News, told the Daily Ticker. The agency is currently tracking 30 clusters of illnesses caused by pathogens such as Salmonella, E. Coli, and Listeria.
But some experts believe the shutdown will not affect on food safety. “The government is not protecting the consumer, the industry is,” Ben England, an attorney who worked with the FDA for 17 years, told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s in the best interest of the food manufacturers to protect their customers.”
It’s also up to manufacturers to ensure food safety because the FDA inspections are “sporadic,” said founder and president Ned Mitenius of Periscope Consulting, an organization that helps food companies through recalls, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
Regardless, the FDA and CDC are responsible for tracking any illnesses should they emerge, a difficult task with agency staff out of work, according to Michael Lucas, a product safety consultant and CEO of Frequentz.
About 48 million Americans get sick from foodborne pathogens each year, according to the CDC. Of them, about 128,000 people become hospitalized and 3,000 die. The most common foodborne illnesses come from the norovirus, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus pathogens.