The Food and Drug Administration is closed during the government shutdown.
The furloughed employees turned in their government-issued cell phones and were told not to even check their work email until Congress passes a budget. Same for the food safety inspectors at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That leaves 85% of the nation's food supply unmonitored and uninspected.
Here's what's not going on during the shutdown:
- Lab testing of food samples—for sanitation, disease, additives, or parasites—is almost non-existent.
- Foodborne illness outbreaks aren't traced, tracked, or monitored. The CDC's 80-person food pathogen staff is reduced to two, with just one lone, unfurloughed CDC employee on the salmonella, listeria, and E. coli beat for the entire country.
- Pending actions on known outbreaks that were sickening people before the shutdown have been suspended. Yesterday's reported outbreak of salmonella is a prime example; it had already been spotted by the USDA when the shutdown halted the investigation and reporting mechanism. It sickened 278 people in 18 states before the barebones CDC staff could pinpoint the source (Foster Farms chicken) and notify the public.
- There are no unannounced site visits. The visits are an important tool that keeps processors 'honest'— so far this year spot visits to slaughterhouses and other processors of meat and poultry have already caught 500 violators red-handed. With the enforcement arm of the FDA on furlough, that means that there are 500 perpetrators of meat tainted by diseased feces, illegal drug residue, and other unsanitary and unsavory conditions that are free to ply their trade.
- Our borders are wide open to food imports. One of the FDA's most potent weapons is the 'red alert' list. It allows FDA inspectors to automatically snag shipments from companies that have repeatedly violated our health and safety laws. During the shutdown, tainted, toxic, parasite-riddled, putrefying food imports are freely flowing through our ports of entry.
If you think that sounds like an overstatement, take a look at some of the past Inspection Refusal Reports, released monthly by the Food and Drug Administration. The blue Chinese pork that had been contaminated by a phosphorescent bacteria that caused the meat to glow in the dark will have you thinking again.
What's safe to eat on the government shutdown diet?
Eggs, meat, and poultry
I wouldn't exactly call these safe even though USDA inspectors are still on the job. Egg farms, poultry processors, and slaughterhouses aren't allowed to stay open without an inspector on site, and because these facilities are so important to the nation's food supply, the inspectors are unfurloughed 'essential' workers. That means that the day-to-day observations are continuing, but the suspension of spot inspections, laboratory testing, and import oversight are putting us at risk.
Fruits and vegetables
This category is just a free-for-all. Fruits and vegetables, both domestic and imported, fall under the FDA’s domain. State agricultural agencies provide some oversight for produce grown within their borders, but on a national level it's being produced and shipped without scrutiny. About 50% of our fruit and 20% of vegetables are imported, and those are flowing in unchecked for parasites, pesticides, herbicides, preservatives, fungicides, hormones, and a long list of banned substances that have shown up in previous shipments.
Canned, boxed, and packaged groceries
Inspections for these products fall under the purview of the idled workers at the Food and Drug Administration. While most food-borne illness is spread by perishable foods, pantry foods can pose threats of their own. The FDA has previously encountered risky and unsavory additives like lead-laced candy, industrial resins in rice, canned meats infected with mad cow disease, and a food processor who reused cooking oil salvaged from sewer drains. Some of the pre-shutdown findings that haven't been supported by FDA alerts, withdrawals, and recalls include metal fragments in both Turkey Hill ice cream and Justin's nut butters, plastic particles in Pillsbury cinnamon buns, and ingredients like nuts and shellfish– potentially deadly allergens– that are undeclared on package labeling in dozens of products like Safeway cake mixes, See's candies, and P.F. Chang's frozen dumplings.
Fish and shellfish
Seafood safety is a crapshoot, but that's true even when the government is up and running. We import more than 90% of our seafood but have the resources to inspect less than 10%, with a tiny fraction of that portion going on to lab testing for abnormalities, pathogens, and illegal substances. There is little scrutiny despite the fact that most is farmed in developing nations with unsanitary conditions and lax regulations, where untreated animal manure and human waste can be used as feed, and antibiotics, pesticides, and fungicides are liberally applied to battle the rampant bacteria and disease. Salmonella and excrement are so routinely found in imported seafood that entire nations are on the FDA's 'red alert' list so that every one of their shipments can be flagged at the border—at least they would be if the FDA were open for business. These days it's all waved through and sent on to the nation's supermarkets.
Even when the government is fully operational, our nation's food safety monitoring is over-burdened and under-funded. Our fragmented collection of responsible agencies and their archaic food safety laws have never caught up with the complex, globalized system of food production. In a 'normal' year we see 3,000 deaths and millions of cases of food-borne illness caused by pathogen-tainted foods. This year, with uninspected shipments moving through the food supply for months to come, you can expect to see a lot more
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