Government Agencies

Govt shutdown halts FDA food inspections. Should you worry?

Schuyler Velasco
Government workers protest the possibility of a federal shutdown Monday, Sept. 30, 2013, in Chicago.
M. Spencer Green | AP

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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Food-safety advocates worry that even a short-term lapse in the FDA's activities could be a notable setback for the agency. "The FDA, in partnership with the states, inspects about 80 facilities a day, and they're not sending people to do those routine inspections," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, the food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group based in Washington.

She notes that individual state agencies, which actually conduct a large portion of inspections, will continue operating, but it's unclear how long they can go on without federal oversight—and the fees the FDA pays such agencies to conduct inspections on its behalf.

(Read more: Left isn't telling the truth on shutdown: Gartman)

The inspections themselves aren't the biggest issue, says Dr. Hooker. "It's not that every plant is expecting to have a visit," in the immediate future, he notes; depending on the type of food facility, some establishments are inspected as infrequently as every three to five years. "You're reducing the probability of an inspection by such a tiny number. There's no long-lived impact other than the number of inspections in that queue. I don't know that in the short term there would be much impact."

Plus, some inspections will continue. The United States Department of Agriculture will continue to monitor meat and poultry production during the shutdown, because those facilities can't lawfully operate without a USDA inspector present. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's seafood inspection program, which is funded through service fees and not government appropriations, is still up and running. (FDA seafood inspections, of course, are not).

The bigger problem, according to Ms. DeWaal, could be the management of those inspections, and whether the FDA can adequately respond to an emergency. "Those inspections help to prevent problems with food safety, fix them before contaminated foods get into the market. These agencies are working at very minimal capacity. They say they will retain some capacity for emergencies, but if you don't have CDC [Centers for Disease Control] in place and you're operating on a skeleton crew anyway, I don't have confidence that they have the capacity to recognize and emergency and respond to it."

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Another huge area of concern is food imports, which are monitored by FDA officials. "FDA is responsible for everything that's coming in," DeWaal says. "They're underfunded in that area generally, but no imports are being inspected for safety right now. People could certainly target the U.S. for products that night not be accepted elsewhere."

The agency is underfunded already. The FDA lost $209 million as part of the $85 billion in automatic budget cuts that took place March 1 of this year, forcing 2,100 fewer inspections from 2012. The shutdown, DeWaal says, just exacerbates the problem. "I think every day it goes on, the work that was scheduled is being delayed," she says. "It really pushes back other needed enforcement, and it's foolhardy to have these federal workers sitting in their homes when they all want to be at work. It's critical to public safety that this work is conducted."

—By Schuyler Velasco, The Christian Science Monitor.