It's not just about which of your favorite national parks is shuttered. Should the government shutdown continue, dozens of U.S. food facilities will go uninspected. Because while the FDA will continue manning all meat- production facilities with full-time inspectors, the administration will be unable to continue the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities.
The agency, which is responsible for overseeing the safety of 80 percent of the country's food supply, will be operating with just over half of its already too-small staff during the shutdown. And that includes employees who work expecting drugs and tobacco.
According to a memo from the Department of Health Services, the FDA will have to stop "safety activities such as routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports, notification programs (e.g., food contact substances, infant formula), and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making."
To put a little perspective on what that might mean in practice, we can take a look at the warning letters the agency has sent to food-production facilities. The safety infractions include illegal drug residue found at a New York slaughtering facility and unsanitary conditions found at a Tennessee canned-foods facility. We can't say whether or not these issues would cause illness if left unfixed, but it conjures a not-so-comforting picture of the safety of our food supply. In short, we definitely want someone making sure they get fixed.
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Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control also will face severe staffing shortages. The agency, which is responsible for tracking and monitoring the dozens of small food illness outbreaks going on at any given time, will maintain 32 percent of its normal workforce. According to Politico, that means there's one person (not the usual eight) monitoring salmonella, E. coli and listeria. And another person (instead of five) monitoring Listservs and data systems to spread the word about outbreaks and investigations.
A spokesperson from the FDA told Huffington Post on Wednesday that some food-facility inspections would be completed by state agriculture departments during the shutdown but couldn't give an estimate of how many.
Of course, it could be that nothing goes wrong with our food supply while Congress continues the stalemate over the Affordable Care Act. But with so many gaps in our usual safety systems, it wouldn't be shocking if something did.