Protecting Food. Empowering Whistleblowers.

Food Integrity Campaign Blog

What the Government Shutdown Means for Food Safety

FIC Staff | January 18, 2019

This week, the Food Integrity Campaign (FIC) attended a Congressional briefing hosted by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), “Trump Shutdown Impact on Nation’s Food Supply.” The room was packed and for good reason. The federal government shutdown, now the longest on record, raises important questions about how well the government is fulfilling one of its most important responsibilities: protecting consumers from unsafe food.

As a result of the shutdown, federal food safety inspectors are working without a paycheck and with no idea when they will get one. From FIC’s experience representing federal inspectors, we know these professionals are a committed bunch. They know how important their jobs are to the public, and now they face the strain of doing that work while wondering how to keep their families afloat.

Two agencies inspect food plants to monitor food safety standards: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Meat and poultry plants are not allowed to operate without the presence of USDA inspectors at all times, and USDA inspectors have continued working since the shutdown began in December. The FDA only conducts inspections of  food processing facilities under its jurisdiction every one to three years, much too infrequently. Those inspections stopped altogether with the shutdown. This week, the FDA announced that one third of those inspections will resume.

However, food safety isn’t just about inspections. The shutdown has stopped or weakened other important food safety functions as well.

  • Communication: The USDA’s Consumer Hotline for reporting contaminated meat and poultry is down. Many communications staff responsible for public outreach in the event of a food recall or foodborne illness outbreak are out on furlough.
  • Surveillance: Before the shutdown, the FDA announced it would test more frequently for foodborne pathogens in lettuce as a response to the recent outbreaks of E. coli, but that work is likely on hold now. State health officials can’t reach trusted sources at the FDA, who’ve been ordered not to work.
  • Research: Long-term research projects at both the USDA and the FDA are largely on hold. There’s a lot yet to learn about how to prevent and address foodborne illness outbreaks, especially on the pressing topic of antibiotic resistant pathogens. Any pause on that work is cause for concern.

To quote Rep. DeLauro, undermining food safety is “wrong and immoral.” As champions for food system whistleblowers and advocates for stronger food safety policies, we at FIC are eager for the shutdown to be over.