Food Safety Inspections Are off During the Government Shutdown — How Worried Should We Be?

Here's how much it actually matters that the Food and Drug Administration isn't doing routine food inspections right now.

Due to the ongoing government shutdown, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration has stopped routine food safety inspections — meaning our seafood, fruits, vegetables, and many other foods are at “high risk of contamination,” according to The New York Times.

Here's how it's supposed to work: F.D.A. inspectors will normally visit about 160 manufacturing and food processing plants across the country each week to see if everything is being handled properly. The F.D.A. is in charge of monitoring about 80 percent of all the food in the country. Without regular inspections, we are at a high risk of catching food-borne illnesses, which send about 128,000 people to the hospital each year, and kill 3,000, according to the NYT report, which adds, “The F.D.A. inspects food companies for bugs, rodents, mishandled food, improper preparation and other hazards.”

The F.D.A. Commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, took to Twitter to say he hoped things would be resolved swiftly in the coming days. He’s doing what he can to help in the meantime. 

“These are people who are now furloughed and can collect unemployment insurance or take a second job,” he wrote. “If we pull them in and tell them they have to work, they can’t collect. I have to make sure I’m not imposing an undue hardship.”

While meat and poultry inspectors are continuing to work without pay, contaminated shellfish ending up in supermarkets or restaurants has become a particular concern.

Are we really in danger of getting sick if our food isn’t regularly being checked? The Feast spoke with Brandon Hernandez, a Colorado-based high-risk quality and food safety consultant, about the risks involved with the lack of food inspections.

Hernandez said it's “very important” that we have food inspectors because "they are the check and balance to unfettered manufacturing of ingredients and finished goods you eat every day."

So... how worried should we be?

“Government shutdowns should always be a cause for concern as it relates to the personnel affected, but the basic services that we take for granted on a day-to-day basis that will be affected by the continued shuttering of federal doors should be paramount,” Hernandez explained. “This includes those services that are responsible for ensuring our food supply chain is clean and operators are manufacturing above board.”

He also explained that while the F.D.A. doesn’t function like the the United States Department of Agriculture, where inspectors are on-site every day actually witnessing the manufacturing process, we still need our food manufacturing facilities to be regularly monitored.

“The F.D.A is responsible for roughly 80 percent of the food out in the market place,” Hernandez said. “Raw proteins, frozen meals, pizza, and milk, for the most part, are USDA regulated. But anything from beverages to pasta and cereal grains to canned goods to seafoods all fall under the F.D.A.’s regulation.”

So, he said, if the shutdown continues, yes: It’s entirely possible our day-to day eating habits can end up being harmful to health — for all of us. Many of our basic foods will make it to supermarket shelves unchecked.
“[It’s bad] not just for domestic operators, but those operators importing food ingredients and finished goods in to the U.S. The shutdown immediately affects the day to day operation of the FDA as it relates to domestic inspections,” Hernandez explains. “Currently, the F.D.A. is still conducting non-domestic site reviews; however, that will most likely not be the case in a prolonged shutdown scenario.”

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