Washington D.C. — Members of the Safe Food Coalition expressed concern today that the ongoing government shutdown may result in an increase in foodborne illness. The two agencies with primary responsibility for food safety, USDA and FDA, are both affected. At USDA, where employees of the Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspect meat and poultry, most food safety workers remain on the job. By contrast, FDA, which oversees the other 75% of the U.S. food supply, has announced that the agency has suspended about two-thirds of its inspections, concentrating on “high risk” facilities, and that it is staffing only emergency response teams. FDA has stopped posting letters warning companies to correct violations since the shutdown started, which raises concerns that officials may not be enforcing the law to the same extent as before the shutdown.
Food safety inspectors perform vital work, they check meat for fecal contamination and catch signs of vermin and poor sanitation practices, which can lead to filth and bacteria getting into our food. The shutdown does not mean consumers should panic: the chances of any specific food you may eat being impacted by the shutdown are still very small. But as the shutdown drags on, more and more people will be eating food from facilities that are not seeing the same level of oversight, a fact that should concern all Americans.
Also concerning is how inspectors and other food safety workers will be affected intensifying financial stress. As of Friday, both USDA and FDA food safety inspectors have all now missed a paycheck. The starting salary for USDA meat inspectors can be as low as $29 thousand a year, which offers little cushion, especially for families. The reality is setting in now that they have expenses that they may not be able to cover, and that stress may bleed over into their work.
“The longer the shutdown continues to drag on, the more dangerous the situation becomes,” said Thomas Gremillion, Director of Food Policy at the Consumer Federation of America. “Consumers deserve better assurance than this that their food is being kept safe.”
“USDA inspectors work in the some of the most inhospitable work environments around,” said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist at Food & Water Watch. “They are exposed to animal diseases and caustic antimicrobial chemicals, and in many plants, they are understaffed. The shutdown is making staffing problems worse. Already, we hear that some inspectors are having a difficult time scraping enough money to put gas in their cars to get to work during the shutdown. The situation is becoming untenable.”
“These workers spend their days doing their best to keep our food free of feces, animal diseases, and filth,” said Sarah Sorscher, Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “We want this shutdown over so they can focus on keeping our food clean, not on how they’ll manage to put food on their own tables.”
SFC members expressed additional concern that federal agencies have not published more information about how the shutdown is affecting the food system. Aside from knowing whether inspections are taking place, the public has been largely kept in the dark on the other important food safety activities performed by the two agencies. The coalition urged USDA and FDA to disclose more information about what the agencies are doing to respond to consumer complaints that may help to identify an outbreak sources, emergency contingency plans—including each agency’s procedures for calling up needed employees that are currently furloughed in the event of a major foodborne illness outbreak and recall, and enforcement activities that have been curtailed, including follow-up inspections and intensified sampling that normally take place in response to inspection results.
Contact: Thomas Gremillion, 202-939-1010