For the past 20 days the United States federal government has been shut down. That means that Congress can’t come to an agreement with the president on how the U.S. Treasury should dispense funds for government projects and agencies — in this case, President Trump would like money to build a border wall, and he hasn’t accepted his Democratic opponents’ compromise of $1.6 billion to fund border security.
Chances are you haven’t yet felt the repercussions of this stalemate in your day-to-day life, but the government shutdown has put 800,000 people on unpaid leave, affecting agencies like Commerce, Homeland Security, Transportation and yes, Agriculture and the Health Department, which could have serious consequences for the food you eat.
How Food Safety Is Affected by the Shutdown
The Health Department, for instance, runs the FDA. Right now, the FDA claims it can’t conduct as many “routine regulatory and compliance activities,” because of the shutdown, as USA Today reports. However, keeping track of “foodborne illness outbreaks” and conducting food inspections are considered essential work — at both the FDA and the USDA — so for now, those processes are still happening. The worry is that if the government shutdown continues, those inspections might slow down, which increases the chance that unsafe food might sneak into supermarkets.
However, yesterday FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb assured Americans via Twitter than his department is hoping to ramp up inspections for high-risk foods (like soft cheese and seafood). He wrote that of the 8,400 scheduled inspections, only 36 or so had been delayed. Politico reports any fearmongering that more poisoned lettuce has managed to elude food inspectors is unfounded. It’s unlikely that many high-risk inspections were missed since the shutdown began. Why? The reason is a little shocking. FDA employees are expected to go into work unpaid to make sure that operations which are essential to “human safety,” keep happening.
THREAD: Food Safety During Shutdown: We’re taking steps to expand the scope of food safety surveillance inspections we’re doing during the shutdown to make sure we continue inspecting high risk food facilities. 31% of our inventory of domestic inspections are considered high risk
— Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) January 9, 2019
In his Twitter thread, Gottlieb wrote that he hopes to bring in about 150 more employees who are currently collecting unemployment checks. The trouble is, if they go back to work — even if it’s unpaid — they can no longer collect that money. So Gottlieb is currently working on finding a way to make those inspections happen without causing “undue hardship.”
However, there are some jobs that have completely stalled, according to The New York Times. For instance, the produce industry isn’t getting any government-sanctioned advice on how to prevent contamination. In the meantime, Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, tells the Times that consumers should probably avoid shellfish during the shutdown.
SNAP Benefits Could Be Affected in February
There could also be troubling news on the horizon for people on SNAP benefits — otherwise known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Funding for the month of January came through before the shutdown, but if it stretches into February, the people who depend on food stamps to feed their families might not receive their benefits. Thankfully, the USDA is working with departments on the state level to distribute next month’s benefits early.