US government shutdown: Where do we go from here?

By Joseph James Whitworth contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Government shutdown, Food safety

US government shutdown: Both sides are still in deadlock talks
US government shutdown: Both sides are still in deadlock talks
Both sides in the US government shutdown refuse to budge after another meeting yesterday and you can’t help but think that the longer this goes on the increased risk there is for food safety.

I am sure you know by now about the US government shutdown. If you don’t I’ll give you a bit of time to catch up or read more about its impact on the food industry – here​, here​ and oh here as well​.

Or you could just look how people were taking to Twitter to voice their opinions on the shutdown​.

“CDC had to furlough 8,754 people. They protected you yesterday, can't tomorrow. Microbes/other threats didn't shut down. We are less safe​,” tweeted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agency director Tom Frieden.

Maybe you are asking the same question as me recently – what is a furlough? Well, it is temporary unpaid leave of employees because of special needs due to economic conditions at the organization or in the general economy. Now that is out of the way, on we go.

Shutdown response

Ben England, founder/CEO, FDA Imports, told our sister publication FoodProductionDaily.com that the delay in US FDA process registration renewals due to a government shutdown is affecting inspections of imported canned foods.

However, Jeffrey T. Barach, principal of food industry consultancy Barach Enterprises LLC, said that the initial impact likely will be minimal.

“The FDA’s mission is mainly inspection,” ​he said. “They often don’t get into a food processing plant very often (about every one to two years) unless there is a problem.”

Barach added that because only a small fraction of food imported into the US passes under inspectors’ eyes, the impact is small but if a major recall occurred there could be problems.

It all seems a little crazy to me. How can something like this happen – admittedly my knowledge of US politics ranks pretty low on the scale- but Congress fails to strike a deal on the new budget and then more than 700,000 employees are left on unpaid leave? Bizarre.      

Staff furloughed

FDA has had 45% of its 14,779 staff furloughed while 68% of 12,825 employees have been affected at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

FDA is continuing maintaining critical consumer protection to handle emergencies, high-risk recalls, civil and criminal investigations, import entry review, and other critical public health issues.

However, the agency is struggling to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities, according to the Department of Health and Human Services contingency plan​.

Meanwhile, CDC is battling to support its outbreak detection and infectious disease surveillance.

Christopher Braden, director of the CDC’s division of foodborne, waterborne, and environmental diseases told the Wall Street Journal​ that only one CDC staffer is tracking reports of foodborne pathogens instead of the normal six staff.

He added that seven epidemiologists are monitoring and responding to outbreaks or clusters of foodborne disease, rather than the usual 18 people.

Speaking before the shutdown, Dennis M. Keefe, director of FDA's office of food additive safety (OFAS), center for food safety and applied nutrition (CFSAN), said objection letters to submitters of pending food contact notifications (FCNs) would not be sent because the agency would not have sufficient funds to operate the program.

He was speaking last month at US law firm Keller and Heckman's Food Packaging Law Seminar.

It is a statutory requirement that FCNs be acted upon within 120 days, so companies that received objection letters would have to resubmit the FCNs once the shutdown is over.

So while the shutdown may not be catastrohpic for food safety, it is hardly going to help the already stretched government agencies in their daily battles and the longer this goes on the more time there is for it to become catastrophic.

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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