The partial shutdown of the U.S. federal government is well into its third week, with few signs of resolution in sight. More than 800,000 federal workers are caught in the middle—some furloughed without pay and others about to miss their first paycheck since before the holiday season.
The resulting impacts stretch across all corners of society and the economy. With trash and custodial services suspended, press reports suggest worsening conditions at America’s national parks. The National Science Foundation stopped reviewing grant proposals. The Interior Department isn’t accepting new Freedom of Information Act requests. And the Small Business Administration halted its loans to small businesses.
Here’s one more to add to the list—and it’s pretty horrifying: With hundreds of investigators on unpaid leave, the Food and Drug Administration has suspended routine inspections of U.S. food-processing facilities, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday.
The FDA regulates around 80 percent of the American food supply, including all processed foods. The agency typically conducts around 160 facility inspections each week, where investigators look for things like unsanitary conditions, food borne disease contamination and pest problems, the Post reported.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said he hopes to have some inspectors back on the job next week to visit facilities considered “high-risk”—think: Those processing soft cheeses, seafood and fresh vegetables. “We are doing what we can to mitigate any risk to consumers through the shutdown,” he told the Post.
Regular inspections will continue at meat, poultry and egg producers, which fall under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the FDA will continue its foreign food inspections. But considering the recent E. coli outbreak, which sickened 62 people, was linked to romaine lettuce from American producers, the fact that domestic inspections are stalled is unsettling, to say the least.
High-risk facilities comprise roughly a third of the FDA's domestic inspections, Gottlieb further explained in a Twitter thread on Wednesday, as cited by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. These locations either process sensitive ingredients or were recently involved in a recall—and we saw plenty of those in 2018, including McDonald's salads, Del Monte vegetable trays and Kellogg's cereal.
After canceling more than 50 high-risk inspections, Gottlieb began looking for ways to bring about a tenth of the inspection force back to work. "I think it’s the right thing to do for public safety,” he told NBC News.
In the meantime, inspection dates continue to pass—potentially endangering consumers and "[putting] our food supply at risk," said Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Regular inspections, which help stop food borne illness before people get sick, are vital,” she said in a statement on Tuesday.
FDA employees also expressed concern about the risk to public health. Geneve Parks, a furloughed FDA chemist, estimates that only five people are working in the agency's chemistry division during the shutdown. "It's terrifying," she told CNN. "What if there's an outbreak? What would the agency do if something happened and they don't have the staff to handle it?"
These fears are not unfounded by any stretch—food borne illnesses sicken 48 million people in the U.S. each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 130,000 people are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.
"There is a very concerted effort to stand up critical functions and to focus on our consumer protection mission, in many cases relying on excepted employees not being paid," Gottlieb told CNN.
Yes, investigators who return to work to look for listeria in your ice cream will do so without pay—leaving them unable to collect unemployment insurance or pick up a second job. With base salaries starting at around $30,000 a year, many inspectors live paycheck to paycheck, Gottlieb said, and the shutdown may last longer than their savings accounts allow.
This is already the second-longest shutdown in modern political history, CNN reported this week, and signs indicate it will continue. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump stormed out of a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, calling their talks about ending the shutdown “a waste of time,” according to multiple news outlets including CNBC.
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Mary Mazzoni, Senior Editor, has written for TriplePundit since 2013. She is also Managing Editor of CR Magazine and the Editor of 3p’s Sponsored Series. Mazzoni’s recent work can be found in Conscious Company, AlterNet and VICE’s Motherboard. She is based in Philadelphia.