The government shutdown could lead to a perhaps unexpected negative consequence: more food-poisoning outbreaks.
With the fight over President Donald Trump’s demands for a wall along the US-Mexico border dragging on into its 19th day, some food-safety functions of the US government are going untended. According to one expert, the shutdown’s effects should make Americans concerned about food-poisoning outbreaks.
There are two major agencies that oversee food-safety inspections in the US: the Food and Drug Administration, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services; and the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a division of the US Department of Agriculture.
The FSIS oversees inspections of meat, poultry, and eggs, while the FDA looks after the rest.
According to the USDA’s shutdown plan, FSIS employees are deemed “essential,” and inspections conducted by the agency will continue. But employees carrying out those inspections are not paid.
By contrast, the FDA’s plan determined that while limited inspections would continue during the shutdown — such as inspections of imported foods — a majority of food operations would be shut down.
Read more:The effects of the shutdown will get exponentially worse if the fight drags on
“FDA would be unable to support some routine regulatory and compliance activities,” the FDA plan said. “This includes some medical product, animal drug, and most food related activities. FDA will also pause routine establishment inspections, cosmetics and nutrition work, and many ongoing research activities.”
In addition, the FDA deemed that employees responsible for responding to outbreaks of foodborne illness were essential. But those measures are for response, rather than the inspections that could prevent an outbreak.
“I’d say you should be very worried about your food safety, in part because the work that’s not being done right now is the work that’s needed to prevent the next outbreak of foodborne illness,” Sarah Sorscher, a deputy director of regulatory affairs at the consumer watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Public Radio International.
According to the FDA’s plan, 41% of all employees are on furlough, meaning the workers are not receiving pay and are barred from coming to work. Only 11% of FSIS workers are furloughed in that agency’s plan.
But even those FSIS and FDA employees who are still on the job are facing financial woes because of the lack of pay. Unpaid employees in other agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration, are said to be calling in sick in large numbers, and problems in those departments are adding up.
In its shutdown plan, the FSIS said problems with safety would worsen as a shutdown dragged on.
“A lengthy hiatus would affect the safety of human life and have serious adverse effects on the industry, the consumer and the Agency,” the report said.
Bill Marler, an attorney specializing in food-poisoning outbreaks who has won more than $600 million for clients in foodborne-illness cases, pointed out that the real possibility of not receiving a paycheck on January 15 was also most likely affecting the inspectors remaining on the job.
“Seriously, can we expect, as the shutdown stumbles into week two, that inspectors’ focus are solely on preventing the next E. coli, Salmonella or Listeria outbreak?” Marler wrote in a blog post.
When asked by Business Insider what people could do to avoid another food-poisoning outbreak, Marler had just one suggestion.
“Call and write the president,” Marler said in an email on Tuesday.