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Apocalypse

Food Inspectors Cooling Their Heels at Home

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Thu, Oct 3, 2013 at 6:00 AM
click to enlarge rotten tomatoes - FLICKR/DONALD LEE PARDUE

You don't collect Social Security and you weren't planning on going to Yosemite anyway. So what do you care about the government shutdown?

Well you eat food, don't you? We hope you have a nice canned-goods supply in the cupboard, because guess who just got furloughed? That's right, the food safety inspectors.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, responsible for 80 percent of the food supply, has halted routine food inspections, Politico reports. Most of the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the group that identifies and tracks foodborne illnesses, are also sitting at home watching Dr. Oz. The only food-safety people still on the job are the meat safety inspectors.

"Make no mistake: The safety of our food supply will suffer if agreement is not reached on a continuing resolution that funds the government," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a longtime food safety advocate. "The government's food safety functions are far more pressing than the unrealistic demands being made by petulant extremists in the House."

The already short-staffed FDA is maintaining just over half of its 14,779 employees while in shutdown mode, but this includes workers who focus on drugs, tobacco and other nonfood areas. During fiscal year 2012, the agency inspected only about 10,000 of the 167,000 domestic food manufacturers, and only about 1,300 of 254,000 food facilities registered with the agency overseas. Those are the non-shutdown numbers.

According to the plan released by the administration, the FDA will be "unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities." That includes routine food manufacturer inspections, compliance and enforcement of food safety regulations and food import monitoring.

It might be prudent to live on PBJs, instant oatmeal, Tic Tacs, Top Ramen and beer for the next few days or weeks.

Over at disease central, the CDC is operating with just 32 percent of its 12,825 employees during the shutdown, making health experts concerned about the government's ability to detect foodborne illness outbreaks (one of our favorite topics over here at Squid Ink, so admittedly we're a little excited).

The agency is currently tracking more than 30 clusters of illnesses, but under the shutdown it has just one poor soul instead of eight monitoring pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria.

"The long and the short of it is that there is only a skeleton crew at CDC to respond to any kind of outbreak," Scott Becker, director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, told Politico. "It's awful for public health." But an absolutely wonderful opportunity if you are Team Bacteria.

The Food Safety and Inspection Services, the agency within the Department of Agriculture tasked with monitoring meat and poultry, is less affected by the shutdown. It will be operating with 87 percent of its 9,633 employees, essentially keeping all federal meat and poultry inspectors on the job. Because we know how dangerous the U.S. meat supply is!

Even still, the USDA warns in its plan that "certain headquarter functions can be suspended for a very short time without a direct and immediate impact on the safety of human life. A lengthy hiatus would affect the safety of human life and have serious adverse effects on the industry, the consumer and the agency."

Let's all throw rotten tomatoes at John Boehner.


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