How is the FDA affected by a government shutdown?

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the safety of the foods, cosmetics, drugs and many other household products that we use and consume within the United States.  During a government shutdown the FDA’s ability to perform critical duties becomes compromised as about half of its staff is furloughed due to being deemed “non-essential”.

Most of the FDA’s food safety activities which includes routine inspections of food manufacturers and monitoring of the food that gets imported into this country are stopped during a government shutdown.   This not only effects the agency’s ability to regulate the products produced and sold within the United States, but also those that are imported from other countries.   It is estimated that roughly 20% of the food that we buy and eat in this country is imported.  One of the major items that are currently lacking inspection due to the government shutdown is the fruits and vegetables that are being imported from other countries.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, who directs the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the “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.”

FDA inspector reviews meat sample

Some inspections will continue to be performed by individual state’s agriculture and public health departments, buts it is hard to get an estimate on how many this includes.  Making things more difficult is that from a consumer’s perspective it is often times difficult to tell which food items have been produced within the United States from the ones that have been imported.  And even under normal conditions it is especially hard if not nearly impossible to tell which items or lots of food have actually been reviewed by an FDA inspector.

“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.” said Barbara Reynolds, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) director of public affairs.  This lack of manpower affects not only the FDA’s ability to identify food that is not safe for consumption due to a contamination or for other reasons, but also its ability to respond to and clean up these outbreaks once they have been identified becomes severely diminished.

Some of the other related government programs which monitor public safety have been completely shut down including OutbreakNet, PulseNet and others.  Others agencies like the FDA have only been partially shut down including the CDC.  Fortunately however some government agencies such as the Food Safety and Inspection Service or FSIS which operates under the Department of Agriculture still maintains the majority of its staff during a shutdown and are less severely affected.  Of the food industries two that are considered more prone to causing outbreaks are the meat and poultry industries, inspections of these particular industries will continue as normal through the shutdown.

Overall it is hard to say what the long term effects from the partial government shutdown will be. It will be a waiting game to see if anything will go severely wrong due to the lack of inspections and reduced functional capacity of these agencies.  The likelihood however of something going wrong and an unknown outbreak spreading during this time period is significantly higher as long as these employees remain furloughed.