The government shutdown has caused staff reductions at two important federal health agencies, increasing the risk of serious harm to American consumers from food-borne illnesses. The two agencies — the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — have decided to focus their remaining resources on imminent threats. But they have shut down very important work that allows them to spot potentially serious problems in advance and take steps to head them off. The longer Congressional Republicans allow the shutdown to continue, the greater the danger of harm.
The F.D.A., which regulates most of the food Americans eat, has furloughed about 6,620 about of its 14,800 employees. The agency is no longer conducting routine inspections in this country or abroad of food manufacturers, warehouses, packers, distributors and other key links in the food production chain. It had planned to average 200 routine inspections a week.
In addition, it will not be able to conduct routine analyses of imported foods to look for potential problems or monitor imports that have been found to carry dangerous germs or contaminants in the past, such as seafood, infant formula, and fruits and vegetables. The agency is focusing on pathogens that cause immediate illness rather than longer-term threats like arsenic in rice, on which all assessment work has stopped.
Only skeleton crews are monitoring databases, including consumer complaint reports, that often provide evidence of emerging threats. Even if warning signals are detected, the agency does not have the staff to look deeply into the problem. Instead, it is limited to “for cause” inspections of food-borne illness episodes in which there is evidence of an imminent threat to health or life.