January 21, 2019

The Government Shutdown Is Weakening U.S. Food Security

“We all have to eat, which may explain why food safety protections have such broad public support. No elected representative wants to stand for subjecting more children, elderly people and other vulnerable populations to serious foodborne illness. Yet, the current government shutdown seems likely to have that effect.

Two agencies — the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) — share primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of the U.S. food supply. The shutdown affects both of them in serious ways.

At FDA, shutdown plans called for furloughing 41 percent of the agency’s 17,397 employees. But that number is misleading, because food safety is affected differently than other activities at the agency. The approval of new medical products and other “user fee” supported tasks at FDA are effectively immune to the shutdown. FDA’s food safety division, however, is almost entirely supported by appropriations. As a result, the regulators charged with ensuring the safety of 75 percent of the food supply have mostly been sent home.

One particularly tangible impact of FDA’s funding lapse is the suspension of routine inspections. That cop is no longer on the beat; the inspectors are furloughed. Maybe they would not have found any violations at the plants they were scheduled to visit. Maybe the plants would not have made any corrections to reduce foodborne illness risk and prevent someone’s child from ending up in the hospital. We may never know, but this state of affairs raises grave concerns unless you think food facility inspections are pointless.”

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