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'Routine' FDA inspections of food facilities suspended due to government shutdown

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Here’s a taste of the government shutdown.

The Food and Drug Administration has 60 percent of its 1,602 investigators on furlough, according to an administration spokesman – and the effects on the country’s food supply may last well beyond the shutdown’s expiration date, whenever that may be, experts said.

“There are 626 total FDA investigators excepted and reporting to work, and 976 who are furloughed,” Steven Immergut, the FDA's assistant commissioner for public affairs, said in an email on Tuesday. “These investigators work across the agency portfolio, not just on food products.”

Cuts to the number of FDA inspectors was one of the expected outcomes of the government shutdown that has now entered its second week, but food safety experts are now warning that the longer Congress goes without appropriating funds, the greater the effect may be on consumers across the country.

“During the lapse in appropriations, FDA will not be conducting routine domestic or international inspections of food facilities,” Immergut said in the email. “Excepted FDA inspectors are prioritizing their work based on public health need and are being deployed to respond to recalls, outbreaks or other situations requiring immediate attention. However, they will not be conducting important routine work to support inspections.”

The Food Safety and Inspection Service issued an alert on Tuesday morning after 278 people fell sick in 18 states, an outbreak that the notice said is “continuing.” The alert linked the illnesses back to chicken products from a trio of Foster Farms facilities in California.

The FSIS – which falls under the Department of Agriculture and is tasked with inspecting meat, poultry, and egg products – has continued its daily inspections despite the shutdown, according to the USDA’s plan for the lapse in government funding, and retained 87 percent of its staff.

The FDA and Centers for Disease Control were hit considerably harder by the cuts, and that could leave weaknesses in the nation’s defenses against food-borne illness, said Sandra Eskin, director of food safety for the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“The food safety system is a lot more than just inspection,” Eskin said. Outbreaks are “only a small percentage of what the agency does,” she said. “Similarly, outbreaks are a small percentage of the food safety net.”

While furloughed FDA workers sit at home, a mountain of overdue inspections is piling up for them back at the office, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Forty-five percent of the administration’s workers have been furloughed.

“For every day the government is shut down, it’s going to take them many weeks to make up the work that’s not being done,” Smith DeWaal said on Tuesday. “When they come back to work there’ll be a backlog of plants that should have been visited during this period that aren't being visited. Our inspection system is already pretty anemic, and now it’s not even moving, now it’s totally dysfunctional.”

A contingency plan outlining FDA operations in a shutdown said that it would be prepared to respond to food emergencies, and that 578 inspection staff would be excepted from the furlough. A large share of the administration’s activities would fall victim to the shutdown, however, the plan from the Department of Health and Human Services states.

“FDA will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities,” according to the plan. “FDA will also have to cease safety activities such as routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, 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.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a D.C.-based consumer advocacy non-profit, warned of the effects of a prolonged shutdown on food safety, saying the FDA “plays a vital national role in protecting consumers from contaminated and misbranded food.”

“The irresponsible shutting down of government and particularly public health agencies like FDA and CDC places families at risk from foodborne diseases,” the center’s Smith DeWaal and Executive Director Michael Jacobson wrote in an Oct. 4 letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. “Congress should not play politics, at the expense of consumers.”

Communication between the three agencies would be important in the event of a major food-borne outbreak, experts said, as reports of an illness spread from local responders to state officials and finally to the federal level.

“If we have a major recall, they might be challenged,” Eskin said. “They've committed to taking care of recalls but if it’s a situation where it’s really something major, I hope they’ll be able to deploy the staff they need to.”

The CDC has said since the beginning of the shutdown that its ability to respond to an outbreak was cut harshly by the disappearance of government funds, with 68 percent of its staff placed on furlough.

“We are monitoring about 30 clusters of foodborne illness across the nation with our reduced foodborne staff. We have reduced the number of people monitoring and analyzing information from states,” Barbara Reynolds, the CDC’s director of public affairs, said in an email on Tuesday. “With more than two-thirds of CDC’s staff unable to work, we will be less likely to find outbreaks, to stop them as quickly, and we will have delays in determining best strategies to prevent future outbreaks.”

Regarding the salmonella outbreak alerted by the FSIS on Tuesday, the CDC is "continuing to trace human cases of illness and to determine the outbreak illness characteristics, for example looking at the fact that we are finding resistance to antibiotics among the 7 strains identified in this outbreak," Reynolds said in an email. "We lost some time in information exchange but are back to nearly full staff in our PulseNet and Epi areas of the foodborne disease program."

One problem at the FSIS, CDC, and FDA as the shutdown goes on may be simple confusion, said Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign at the Government Accountability Project.

“Who’s not working, everything’s just sort of up in the air right now, and that alone if nothing else is a problem when you’re dealing with potentially deadly products entering the market place,” Hitt said on Tuesday.

“Right now it’s likely that outbreaks aren’t being recognized, and if they are, their investigations aren’t being completed in a timely way,” Smith DeWaal said. “And that means contaminated food products aren’t being removed from the market as quickly as they should be.”

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