Does the U.S. government shutdown affect food safety?

Amid the partial shutdown of the U.S. government, discussions have flurried about the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has halted some surveillance inspections at food production facilities.

People are particularly concerned about the stopping of high-risk food surveillance. High-risk foods, like seafood and produce, are more susceptible to contamination with foodborne pathogens.

“These are inspections where they catch issues before people get sick,” Sarah Sorscher of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told The New York Times. She also noted that foodborne illness outbreaks can still be associated with non-high-risk foods, like flour.

“They’re not going in and doing routine, unannounced inspections that are designed to catch unsanitary conditions and other problems before they make people sick,” Sorscher told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “That work is on hold.”

But The New York Times notes that not all food safety regulatory activities have stopped, reporting that FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that surveillance has continued of domestic producers who have posed food safety concerns in the past, as well as inspections of products from overseas.

Gottlieb is also working to restart inspections of high-risk facilities, which he said made up 31% of the FDA’s inventory of domestic inspections.

“It’s true in the 2013 shutdown, those inspections were stopped,” he said in a tweet on Jan. 9. “We’ve taken a different posture based on sound public health and legal rationale.” He said he expected the inspections to resume “next week, maybe earlier.”

In another viral tweet thread shared by Gottlieb, food and agriculture reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich crunched some numbers, pointing out that the inspections being rescheduled comprised only a small percentage of the FDA’s annual inspections. Bottemiller Evich points out that of about 20,000 high-risk food facilities in the U.S., the FDA inspects approximately 20 to 50 each week. Many of those had not been scheduled during the shutdown in the first place, due to holiday-season closures.

“The idea that a couple weeks of no routine food inspections puts us all in danger is probably a bit of a stretch,” she said.

There are still other food safety checks in place. Food manufacturers and processors are continuing their own food safety practices, testing for common foodborne pathogens like E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria and recalling as needed. On its website, the FDA has continued to publish reports of voluntary recalls during the shutdown.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also continued its inspections of domestic meat and poultry, though workers are not currently being paid.

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