WASHINGTON, DC - The government shutdown is now three weeks in, and there’s no end in sight. While all federal agencies are suffering, the Food and Drug Administration is facing unique challenges. In response to the shutdown, the FDA has been forced to suspend a large portion of its inspections, sparking concerns about possible foodborne illness outbreaks.
"This is a departure from practices during past shutdowns, and part of our continuing effort at FDA to focus our resources on areas of highest potential risk to consumers during the shutdown," wrote FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb on Twitter on Wednesday.
With 41 percent of FDA employees out of work, there are definite repercussions. While imported food inspections have continued at their normal rate, domestic inspections have slowed, reported CNBC. This is the first week that inspections are to be postponed, as there were no inspections conducted during the two weeks around the holidays.
The shutdown is not a completely new occurrence—the 2013 shutdown lasted 16 days, though during that time, domestic inspections were stopped entirely. This time, the FDA is taking a different approach with just a slowdown in inspection operations.
"We've taken a different posture based on sound public health and legal rationale," Gottlieb wrote.
Seafood, cheese, baby formula, and other “high risk” foods, making up 31 percent of all domestic inspections, will continue to be analyzed. However, non-high risk foods like peanut butter and flour have been known to become contaminated in the past.
"Foodborne illness can happen with any kind of food," said Sarah Sorscher, Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Advocacy groups have expressed concern that the longer the shutdown lasts, and the FDA conducts inspections at a decreased rate, the higher the risk of a food safety incident.
"It's bad news for consumers," Thomas Gremillion, Director of Food Policy at the Consumer Federation of America, told CNBC via email. "FDA inspections help to flag issues like listeria contamination and rodent infestations that prevent foodborne illness outbreaks."
Even if the FDA does flag a potential food safety problem, due to the furlough, its laboratories may not be fully staffed, leading to delayed responses. There are additional concerns regarding the return of furloughed staff at the end of the shutdown, whenever that might be. Most food inspectors already make less than $40,000 per year, often living paycheck to paycheck. As the shutdown rolls on, many federal workers are looking for employment elsewhere, meaning there may be a shortage of staff returning to work.
AndNowUKnow will continue to report on the government shutdown and the effect it has on food safety.