The last few months have seen a number of outbreaks related to food contamination in the United States, and it looks like things are about to start getting even worse.
The partial government shutdown, which has been going strong for almost three weeks now, has left nearly one million federal employees either having to go without pay or on furlough, and that includes approximately 41 percent of the employees working for the Food and Drug Administration, according to the New York Times.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the FDA’s commissioner, spoke on Wednesday about the effects the shutdown is having on the federal agency, and warned that they have been forced to stop their routine inspections of certain high-risk foods, including seafood, fruit, and vegetables. Meat and poultry is still being inspected by the agency, but those doing so are working without pay.
All overseas imports are still being inspected as well.
Dr. Gottlieb has said he is hoping to find a way to bring another 150 employees back to work, but is conscious of how it may affect them personally considering they won’t be paid to return.
“These are people who are now furloughed and can collect unemployment insurance or take a second job. If we pull them in and tell them they have to work, they can’t collect. I have to make sure I’m not imposing an undue hardship.”
He has assured consumers that the agency is continuing to do whatever they can to prevent any outbreaks, despite being stretched very thin as a result of all the furloughed workers.
Food safety advocates are highly concerned about the effects of the shutdown, as they firmly believe that inspections by the FDA, who are responsible for the regulation of about 80 percent of food in the U.S., regularly prevent major outbreaks of food-borne diseases that could prove deadly to the American population.
“These are inspections where they catch issues before people get sick,” said Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “The announcement that they are going to try to start up high-risk inspections is a positive step. But, we’ve had outbreaks from foods that are not high risk — from flour, from packaged foods. So I think that the fact that two-thirds of establishments are not going to be inspected is still a problem.”
Also under continued surveillance despite the shutdown are producers and factories that have a history of outbreaks, according to Gottlieb.
Fortunately, unlike many other government agencies, the FDA is not solely reliant on funding provided by the government. More than half their funding actually comes from user fees imposed on the pharmaceutical, medical device, generic drug, and other industries subject to their regulations.
As a result, the agency is still able to pay some of its employees, but many of the funds have had to be redirected so that more urgent inspections can continue to take place rather than the usual recipients of that money. There are approximately 10,000 employees still working despite the shutdown.
But Michael Halpern, deputy director of the science and democracy center, is concerned about a major backlog being created because of the workers who are on furlough, as well as the redirections that have had to take place.
“We have food outbreaks even during normal times, and if the agency is stretched even thinner, it can’t cover much ground,” he said.
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