The partial government shutdown is playing out differently for the nation’s top food safety regulators.
At the Food and Drug Administration, fewer than half of the usual number of food safety inspectors are visiting produce farms and food-packaging plants around the country. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has kept more than 8,000 workers — about 90 percent of its food inspection staff — on the job at livestock slaughter plants without pay.
One reason for the difference is that USDA inspectors must be on site for meat processors to operate. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue sought to reassure consumers on that point in a video posted to Twitter on Tuesday.
“They’ve been on the job, they’re on the job, they’re staying on the job and to them I want to say ‘thank you,’” Perdue said.
America has safe meat, poultry & egg products today, thanks to the dedicated @USDAFoodSafety team, which remains at work during this partial government shutdown. Everyone should know that our USDA FSIS folks answered the call to keep protecting our protein, and I thank them. pic.twitter.com/ZPOfPDqAGm— Sec. Sonny Perdue (@SecretarySonny) January 22, 2019
According to some news reports, federal workers have started calling in sick in greater numbers because of the shutdown. That does not appear to be happening at meat plants, according to Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the nonprofit food safety advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Still, Sorscher said, working without a paycheck comes at a cost for federal employees.
“USDA inspectors, for instance, get paid a starting salary of about $29,000,” Sorscher said. “That doesn’t provide a lot of padding, especially if you’re trying to raise a young family on that income.”
Eric Mittenthal, a spokesperson for the North American Meat Institute, which represents meat processors, said federal inspectors have been on the job as normal, adding, “We fully anticipate inspection at all our plants to continue normally.”
Harvest Public Media tried to contact USDA meat inspectors through their union, the American Federation of Government Employees, but was unable to speak to anyone in time for this story.
In contrast to the USDA, just over 200 FDA food safety inspectors are working during the shutdown. That means only about one-third of the usual FDA inspections are taking place, but Sorscher said that does not necessarily mean foods regulated by the FDA — some 80 percent of the food system — are at an immediate risk. Facilities can go up to five years between visits.
“A lot of the food safety work that’s done is still being done by private companies,” Sorscher said. “Hopefully a lot of companies are still doing the right thing even though there’s no one looking over their shoulder.”
The FDA has said the limited number of inspections will be focused on foods that are a higher safety risk such as seafood, other refrigerated foods and baby formula, because infants are so susceptible to infection.
Both the FDA and USDA continue to announce food recalls. But Sorscher said she's concerned that the shutdown has halted efforts to prevent future foodborne illnesses, such as new rules that may prevent deadly E. coli outbreaks like those that caused recurring recalls of romaine lettuce last year.
“It is definitely not business as usual,” Sorscher said. “The longer the shutdown goes on, the greater the risk that it will have real impacts for consumers in increased risk for illness.”
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