When it comes to the government shutdown, there are plenty of things to feel gloomy and alarmed over. One of the more attention-getting work stoppages so far has been at the Food and Drug Administration, where 45 percent of employees have been sent home and many of the agency's day-to-day activities, most notably food safety inspections, are on hold until the budget impasse is over.
So, 91 percent of seafood that Americans consume, which the United States imports, is not being inspected, currently. The same goes for the nearly 50 percent of fruits and 20 percent of vegetables consumed in the U.S. but imported from abroad. And though many of inspections here in the U.S. are still being carried out through state and local agencies, reporting any problems encountered at the federal level could be difficult.
"Detection [of problems] won't be the issue," says Neal Hooker, a professor of food policy at the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University in Columbus. "Management of, say, a product recall, and helping local public-health agencies work more effectively, those parts will be harder to do."
(Read more: 'TSA feel-ups': What you miss during the shutdown)
The government shutdown has closed down a large part of the FDA, and its food monitoring activities in particular.
"FDA will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities," reads a Health and Human Services memo detailing a contingency plan in the case of a government funding stoppage. "FDA will also have to cease safety activities such as routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports, notification programs, and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making."
The FDA will maintain certain emergency services during the shutdown, including managing high-risk food recalls and other "critical public health issues," per the memo. But the lack of routine health inspections, and the management oversight of more routine food supply hiccups that the FDA deals with on a day-to-day basis begs two questions: Is the country's food supply safe without the FDA, and will its temporary shuttering have any lasting effect beyond the government shutdown?
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