Does a “filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance” sound like something you might be interested in eating? Most FDA staff inspecting food imported into the U.S. have been furloughed during the shutdown, so now might be your chance.
FDA consumer safety officer Teresa Fox demonstrates inspection technique on imported crabmeat.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
“Unfortunately, we are unable to answer your call due to government shutdown.”
That’s the recorded message you'll hear right now if you call the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's division for seafood safety, in the event that you were looking for information on something like the thousands of tons of imported foreign shrimp currently entering the country uninspected for salmonella, decomposition (aka rotting), and other common problems.
With the government shutdown heading into its second week, the agency responsible for the safety of roughly 80% of the national food supply has had to suspend the majority of its inspection activity.
We talked to experts familiar with FDA food safety regulations to understand what this means for American consumers. Here's what you should know:
The FDA has been forced to suspend “the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities.” That doesn’t include meat and poultry inspections, which are handled separately by the USDA, but the FDA oversees almost everything else, including an enormous volume of imported seafood, produce, and packaged foods.
Forty-five percent of all FDA workers have been furloughed, most of them food safety workers (who, unlike their drug-regulating counterparts, aren't able to continue operating with carryover funds from corporate user fees). Employees have been asked to turn in their government cell phones so that they won't be able to read or respond to any work emails.
A lapse in food inspections is a serious health concern, largely because the federal government’s infrastructure for identifying and responding to outbreaks of foodborne illness (specifically, the Center for Disease Control's digital outbreak monitoring system, called PulseNet) isn't operational either during a shutdown. That means that serious outbreaks like, say, Hepatitis A infections caused by imported Turkish pomegranate seeds (discovered this summer) could potentially go undetected.
“When an outbreak is occurring, the CDC needs to have people at both the FDA and the USDA to coordinate, and yet today all these agencies are largely operating on skeleton crews,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Even if there were inspectors on duty to identify health threats in the food supply, there wouldn't be teams in place to investigate and control those threats.
Barbara Kowalcyk, CEO of the nonprofit Center for Foodborne Illness, agrees that “the fact that we're not doing food inspections coupled with the fact that we're not looking for national outbreaks means the public is at risk.”