Could the Government Shutdown Affect the Safety Of Our Food Supply?

gwyneth-made-me-do-it-logospinachAs Day 2 of the government shutdown is in full-swing, we are learning of more and more branches being effected. While barricades on national parks may be top news, other program suspensions should be given a bit more consideration and coverage. One specifically: The suspension of the FDA Food Safety Inspections (look on page 4).

The Department Of Health and Human Services conducted an exhaustive study on the FDA’s current food inspection program in 2010, and found the program already severely understaffed and working at low-level efficiency. The report concluded that less than 24% of the food production facilities are even inspected each year, and inspections declined in previous years, despite an increase in food production facilities. Facilities classified as high-risk for health and safety concerns also declined because of low staffing levels on the FDA’s part. Of facilities which were found to be at high-risk, only 46% were even taken action against, and for the remaining facilities, the FDA either lowered their high-risk classification, or took no action whatsoever. More than 3,000,000 Americans are hospitalized each year, and 5,000 die, from consuming contaminated food and beverages.

If our FDA food inspection program was already hurting, halting the program for even several days seems quite alarming.

While the FDA stated that inspections of meat, poultry, and egg facilities would continue without suspension, the capacity for thorough inspections currently conducted in the average poultry house are grim at best. On average, each USDA inspector in a poultry processing plant has 2-3 seconds to inspect an entire bird for contaminants, and inspects anywhere from 15,000-25,000 birds in a day. I’m not sure a machine-run assembly inspection line could do it faster. In addition, the CDC recently confirmed that at least 28,000 deaths each year are linked to overuse of antibiotics at factory farms. The primary need for so many antibiotics? The animals’ living and breeding conditions are filthy, and disease and sickness runs rampant.

While inspections of meat and poultry facilities will continue through this shutdown, it gives me little relief knowing that meat is not the only cause of human illnesses.

The now infamous 2006 outbreak of E. coli in Dole brand baby spinach led to over 200 serious illnesses and at least 3 deaths. While the FDA was hesitant to state the source of the horrible outbreak, much investigation led experts to claim its probable origins was an Angus cattle ranch.

Spinach took another hit earlier this year when a voluntary nationwide recall was announced on organic baby spinach, also contaminated with E. coli.

And it’s not just food inspections which will be suspended during the shutdown. “The 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” will also be furloughed. Did you catch that? Notification programs on things like INFANT FORMULA recalls will be halted. It’s with body shivers that I recall the Similac infant recall a few years back, where batches of formula were found to contain a common warehouse beetle (both larvae and adults) in the finished product.

I’d like to be the hopeful optimist and think that companies would continue to operate with due diligence, as well as voluntarily recall product during this halt, even when threats of inspections weren’t looming over them. But if these reports and incidences are what can happen when the FDA is on the clock, I shudder to think what could realistically happen when for a few days, facilities are left to their own devices. Call me a cynic, but I’d prefer to be called a realist.

What I want to know is, will we be receiving an extra refund in our taxes next year? After all, our tax dollars are continuing to pay for these services, even though services have been halted. If this were the cable company and my service was out for 5 days, and I continued to pay for such services, I’d demand a refund, and it would most likely be granted.

Refund or not, I just want this whole mess to get sorted out so my tax dollars can be put back to work. We’re talking about the public’s health, after all, not just cable TV.

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