President Obama signed a bill on October 17 to reopen the federal government and end the 16-day shutdown. Throughout the partial federal government shutdown, food safety issues occupied prominent spots in the pages of the nation’s newspapers, alongside news of contentious fiscal negotiations among the House, Senate, and White House. Nonetheless, the food industry soldiered on despite shutdown-related furloughs that idled many regulators and food-safety workers.
News sources from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times ran multiple stories covering the shutdown’s potential to affect food safety—especially due to the furloughs of workers at the FDA, the CDC, and to a lesser extent the USDA.
As though to emphasize the food-safety repercussions, the October 1 shutdown was followed by the announcement of a multistate outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections by the CDC on October 8. Much of the media coverage of this outbreak focused, rightly or wrongly, on the furloughs’ potential effects on government response to the outbreak. With 68 percent of staff members furloughed at CDC and 45 percent at FDA, the shutdown was seen as “endangering what America eats,” as one New York Times article put it.
However, public concern about the shutdown’s effect on meat and poultry inspections may have been misplaced, suggests Purnendu C. Vasavada, PhD, a professor emeritus at University of Wisconsin-River Falls and Food Quality & Safety Editorial Advisory Panel member. Meat and poultry plants are inspected by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which had been less affected by the shutdown because the government considers inspection of these facilities an essential service.
The greater challenge of the shutdown was the additional strain it places on already overstretched resources, Dr. Vasavada says.
“Even on the best of days we have had challenges regarding enforcing food safety requirements and inspections,” he says. “The shutdown exacerbates the situation. Only about 2 percent of the food imported into the U.S. is inspected, and now that is all shut down. One of the goals of the Food Safety and Modernization Act was for the FDA to increase its inspection activities, in order to go from reaction to prevention mode. The FDA’s goal is to inspect 200 plants a week, and now that number could be zero.”
In the absence of government inspectors, responsibility for documentation of safe practices falls to industry, notes Glenn Pogust, who advises clients on food safety issues in the New York office of the law firm Kaye Scholer.
“With the shutdown, even responsible producers, processors, and importers have lost the assumption of safe practices that the imprimatur of positive FDA inspections provides,” Pogust says. “Normally in a civil liability suit the plaintiff has the burden of proof, but in the eyes of a jury, in the event of a food product contamination, the processor or seller will have the burden of proving they did the right thing.”
This situation may persist even after the shutdown is resolved, Pogust notes, due to the backlog of inspections. “In the coming weeks and months, processors will be faced with argument that the FDA wasn’t able to do its job, that inspectors were rushed and trying to make up time,” he says.
One way to safeguard products in the absence of government inspection is with robust traceability capability, notes Michael Lucas, chief executive officer of Frequenz, a track-and-trace technology company in Del Mar, Calif.
“Track-and-trace technology can significantly decrease the amount of products recalled, limiting the need for the FDA to intervene in a county or state recall,” Lucas says via email. Track-and-trace is “a necessary technology to leverage at all times so producers and consumers can rely less on live inspections to ensure food safety,” he says.