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Food safety advocates call for end of shutdown

Funding lapse to take toll on morale, staffing, transparency and ability to respond to outbreaks, advocates say

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Food safety advocates called for an end to the partial government shutdown on Wednesday (Jan. 16), as they gathered on Capitol Hill to highlight ways in which the shutdown is impacting the work of federal agencies that oversee the safety of food in the United States.

Led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D.-Conn.), advocates from three consumer advocacy groups – the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Food and Water Watch (F&WW) and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), said the shutdown has greatly reduced the agencies’ capacity to respond to a potential outbreak and is putting stress on an already overburdened system.

“The president’s shutdown is putting our nation’s food supply at risk — a fundamental responsibility of the FDA and USDA — while he holds the country hostage over a manufactured border crisis,” DeLauro said at the event.

“FDA also remains understaffed for food surveillance and food recall operations, and enforcement appears to be down. At the same time, the status of FDA’s work finalizing guidance and implementing rules related to the Food Safety Modernization Act remains uncertain. That is unacceptable,” she added.

And while U.S. House Democrats have offered multiple options for reopening the government, it is now time for the president to step up and act “on behalf of all Americans for the good of the country,” said DeLauro at the event, which took place on Day 26 of the shutdown.

Caused by disagreement over the president’s demand for $5.7 million in funding for U.S.-Mexico border wall, the record-breaking shutdown has been in effect since December 22, leaving agencies to rely on skeletal staff and unpaid employees to execute critical food safety functions.

And that is putting food safety at risk, both in the short and long term, advocates cautioned Thursday.

At FDA, which oversees 80% of the U.S. food supply, the shutdown led to the furlough of 41% of the agency’s 17,397 employees, initially putting a stop to the agency’s regular food inspections.

And though FDA scrambled this week to call back inspectors to “high risk” food facilities, it remains unclear how many inspectors are now back at their jobs, advocates said Thursday.

“There is the direct impact of inspectors not being there to correct violations. But there is also the direct impact of knowing that the FDA inspector isn’t going to show up tomorrow,” said Thomas Gremillion, director for food policy at the CFA. “Because these are unannounced inspections. And there is this incentive structure that is being eroded.”

The shutdown is also reducing the capacity of agencies to detect food safety problems because the agencies’ consumer monitoring system is down and consumers cannot report food-safety related problems, he added.

And while during this shutdown the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are not affected and they may pick up an illness cluster, they still need FDA and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to trace the cluster to the source of contamination, he added.

“They need to do follow-up testing, someone needs to design sampling plans, (…) and essential people for those tasks are furloughed now.”

Enforcement also appears to be affected, as FDA has not been posting warning letters on its website, Gremillion noted. And it is unclear whether the agency is still issuing such letters, he said.

“What does that signify? We don’t know. Hopefully, they are still doing some enforcement and still posting the warning letters,” he said.

FDA did say that criminal enforcement work and civil investigations on issues that represent a critical threat continues, but what that means “is anybody’s guess,” Gremillion said.

FDA has also stated that in the case of a serious outbreak, the agency has people that can be called back to respond. But that could mean critical delays, as FDA now has to go through an extra step of calling back staff that is not immediately available, Gremillion said.

“Even in best of circumstances, a foodborne illness outbreak is a tragedy and adding that extra layer of uncertainty and dysfunction to the system is not going to improve anything,” he said.

And having people work without pay will affect morale and potentially could impact on how well staff can concentrate on their job, Gremillion said.

Lack of transparency creates confusion and concern 

Gremillion also voiced concern about the lack of transparency that has occurred as a result of the shutdown, despite efforts from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to keep information flowing through his account on Twitter. While Gremillion acknowledged Gottlieb’s efforts, he said the lack of official channels of communication is causing confusion and leading to contradictory information about what FDA is doing and what it is unable to do during the shutdown.

FDA, for instance, stated initially that despite the shutdown, it will continue to review import activities. But more recently, Gottlieb said on Twitter that FDA had restarted sampling of high-risk imported produce in the Northeast.

“And that’s FDA, USDA has even less information coming out,” he noted. “A safe food system is a transparent food system. And my biggest concern is that the shutdown establishes the new normal.”

Shutdown to take toll on long-term food safety projects, staffing, morale 

Advocates also raised concerns about the more long-term effects from the shutdown. According to Sarah Sorscher, deputy director for regulatory affairs at CSPI, the funding lapse could indirectly affect even implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, as states rely on FDA to provide the training and education on some FSMA mandates.

“Some of that may be disrupted by the shutdown,” she said.

The shutdown will also likely delay FDA’s long-term work on other food safety activities. For instance, following the two recalls related to outbreaks involving romaine lettuce, FDA had indicated it would start surveilling romaine lettuce, but that effort will likely be delayed by the shutdown, she said.

“I believe that was part of the FSMA program that was classified as long-term research,” she said. “We will confirm with them but it’s very likely that testing will not be scheduled because of the shutdown.“

Additionally, at USDA some longer-term efforts related to recalls and food safety could also take a back seat due to the shutdown, Sorscher said. 

The agency this year dealt with a massive ground beef recall because of Salmonella and is trying to step up its efforts to prevent such occurences in the future. However, while USDA is testing ground beef for Salmonella now, but it has yet to establish a set of goals for lowering the rate into the future, Sorscher said. 

"They were planning to use that testing to develop the standard that they can apply and they can point out the bad actors who aren't meeting that standard," she said. "That ground beef standard is probably also on hold." 

Additionally at USDA, research and development at the Economic Research Service is also likely to be affected by the shutdown, Sorsher noted. 

"Right now they are able to continue animal care and they are able to continue experiments," she said. "But they cannot start new experiments and that can impact their long-term plan." 

But the most significant long-term impact of the shutdown is probably related to staffing and morale, Sorscher said. 

"These inspectors are not earning a great deal of pay," she said. "At USDA they are starting at $29,000 a year in base pay, which is not a lot, especially if you have a family. So that is significant financial stress. And we are in a labor shortage right now, so ... if people quit, it can be hard to find qualified people." 

Meanwhile, Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist with Food and Water Watch (F&WW) raised concerns about the shutdown’s effect on FSIS’s ability to conduct inspections, noting that USDA inspectors were already stretched thin before the shutdown even took effect.

"USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors work in some of the most inhospitable environments,” Corbo said. “They are also exposed to caustic chemicals that are used in meat and poultry processing. In many cases, they are working understaffed.  These dedicated civil servants have been required to do more with no pay during the past month.”

On top of that, F&WW has been receiving reports that FSIS inspectors are now being asked to pay for their own gas and travel expenses, Corbo said. As a result, many inspectors are beginning to consider quitting.

“The situation is becoming untenable," Corbo said.

Advocates on Thursday said they plan to gather a list of questions about USDA and FDA activities during the shutdown and send them to the top officials at each agency who are still at the job, to get a better picture of food safety efforts during the shutdown. 

 

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