The government shutdown is reaching the end of its third week, leaving employees from all sectors in public service agencies to feel the negative effects. But are they the only ones affected by the shutdown?
According to CNN, almost half of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) staff have been furloughed due to the shutdown, which creates huge safety concerns for the public in the case of an outbreak of foodborne illness.
In the meantime, the FDA is limited on how it can conduct proper investigations without a 2019 fiscal year budget forcing them to rely on carryover fees for potential food outbreaks. The FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb claims in his tweet thread that foreign food inspections are a top priority while domestic inspections will take a backseat.
Note: We’re still doing ALL of our regular foreign food inspections. But, on the domestic side, in rough numbers we’d typically do about 160 domestic food inspections each week, and about 1/3 of those would be considered high risk.
— Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) January 9, 2019
Furthermore, a portion of the public service announcement displayed on their website states:
“The FDA plays a critical public health role. Our work protects the food that families feed their children and pets and ensures the effectiveness of the medicine they need, all of which contribute to improving the health and welfare of Americans. All our work is important, but only some of our work is permitted to continue during a lapse in funding.”
Geneva Parks, a chemist based in the FDA’s Detroit lab, says she’s terrified: “What would the agency do if something happened and they don’t have the staff to handle it?” She is one of many workers on a layoff in her division and further states that she guesses there to be only five chemists leftover at her domestic agency, worrying this could create a slow response during an outbreak.
Weston Syzmanski, an FDA safety officer from Massachusetts who is also working without pay, has also stated his concerns: “When you go out to a restaurant or a grocery store, the American public trusts it. There is a higher risk of injury or death in a potentially very, very serious way.”
The lack of inspectors working for domestic outbreaks means finding contaminants like Salmonella or E.coli in products is not a top priority for the FDA, but instead, they are leaving inspections for food recalls in the hands of the food companies themselves, and still reporting on these outbreaks when they occur.
While a contaminated drug or food products could cause death in an extreme case, there’s only one option the FDA can take in order to increase proper safety inspections for domestic cases: to pressure employees to come into work without pay.
“It’s something we currently aren’t doing. I think it’s the right thing to do for public safety,” said Gottlieb. “For me to do that, it would require calling back about 10 percent of our inspection force.”
However, if employees choose to come into the agency and work without pay, they are not eligible to apply for unemployment benefits and many furloughed employees can’t afford to take that risk. In the meantime, Gottlieb is trying to compensate for food inspectors that travel abroad by reimbursing any travel payments made via credit card after the government shutdown ends.
Other food inspection agencies like the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are forced to carry out inspections without any financial compensation due to a written law implemented by Congress requiring continual inspections during shutdowns. However, their agency only covers meat and egg supplies, leaving the rest of food products under FDA’s jurisdiction.
Despite there only being regular safety inspections on foreign food items, the FDA is working progressively to stay on top of all high-risk inspections, which is a step up from past shutdowns where this assessment was discontinued.