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Government Shutdown Puts Food Supply at Risk in the U.S.

Oct 11, 2013

The government shutdown is endangering America’s food supply, experts say, because food inspections have halted, except for meat and poultry, and agencies have only skeleton staffs to deal with food safety issues.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recalled some furloughed workers to deal with the salmonella outbreak that has sickened nearly 300 people in 18 states, the New York Times reports. But federal agency offices across the country are mostly dark and empty, with the inspectors, lab technicians, and administrative staff on furlough during the battle over government spending. The salmonella outbreak has been traced to chicken products from three Foster Farms’ plants in California.

Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn), a food safety advocate, said the combination of the shutdown and earlier budget cuts to the agencies is “creating the potential for a real public health crisis.”

While meat and poultry inspections continue, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspections of food processing plants, which normally occur at the rate of about 200 plants a week, have stopped. The Agriculture Department’s meat and poultry information and problem hotline is closed and CDC staff who oversee a database that tracks foodborne illnesses are furloughed. The absence of staff members who identify clusters of infections like E coli and salmonella significantly reduces the CDC’s ability to respond to an outbreak, according to the Times. About 45 percent of the FDA staff is furloughed, though the “FDA is doing what it can under this difficult situation to protect public health,” a spokesperson said.

And, according to the Times, experts worry that health alerts are not reaching the public. Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, “The CDC may have brought back some staffers, but their communications staff is working at reduced capacity and that’s a concern. The agency’s ability to get information out is limited.”

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