As concerns over food safety ratchet up during the federal government shutdown, some in the industry believe consumers are less safe.
Ernie Birchmeier, manager of the Center for Commodity Farm and Industry Relations for the Michigan Farm Bureau, is not one of them.
“No one I’ve talked to is saying the sky is falling,” Birchmeier said. “We are fine right now. There are built-in food safety standards that will continue to be met, and a number of food safety inspections (that) will continue to happen.”
Birchmeier and other ag experts say the government shutdown isn’t “too big of a concern” for consumers, since many food-related federal inspectors, including USDA inspectors tasked with routine meat, poultry and egg inspections, are providing an “essential service” to safeguard human health.
Still, the federal government’s partial shutdown on Dec. 22, 2018, forced the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an agency that inspects the nation’s food supply, to furlough 7, 053 of the agency’s 17,397 employees, including hundreds of inspectors.
According to a Washington Post report Wednesday, this “has sharply reduced inspections of the nation’s food supply,” which could make “Americans potentially less safe.”
In particular, the government suspended “routine inspections of domestic food-processing facilities,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told the Washington Post. However, Gottlieb said that some furloughed inspectors could resume work soon.
Currently, the “FDA’s ongoing work upholding food safety continues, even during this partial funding lapse,” he tweeted this week.
“Our ability to monitor/respond to emerging food safety issues is maintained through efforts of a dedicated workforce that’s fully committed to this mission,” Gottlieb continued.
According to Birchmeier, food retailers and wholesalers “all require food safety audits” that are outside the FDA inspections.
“The Meijers of the world, the Krogers of the world — the brokers who may broker some product in — they are requiring the farmers to meet certain food safety standards,” Birchmeier said. “That's above and beyond … what the FDA already does.”
Similarly, Steve Kluting, the national director of product recall for food and agribusiness at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., a Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based risk-management firm, said he hadn’t “heard anything specifically from clients regarding the shutdown.”
“I’m not raising this as an issue with my clients,” he told Michigan Farm News. “As soon as there’s a recall or food safety incident that is negatively impacted by the shutdown — all of that will change. … It’s not overblown, but the real concern is if USDA inspectors were called off. … If you don’t have a USDA inspector on site, you can’t push product through. If they are suddenly gone, the meat and poultry industry would grind to a halt. But I can’t imagine that happening. That’s absolutely the worst-case scenario.”
According to Kluting, the government shutdown or delay “hasn’t created a gigantic concern for food safety consumers.”
“I don’t know if the delay is too big of a concern,” he added. “If this goes into several months, then that’s a different story.”
Government shutdown continues into week three
The FDA requires inspection of all high-risk food facilities every three years under the Food Safety Modernization Act, a law the FDA uses to recall and prevent articles of foodborne illnesses.
Reports surfaced this week that if the shutdown were to continue through this week and become the longest in history, then food safety would begin to erode.
According to Birchmeier, this won’t be the case, as federal inspection of fruits and vegetables will continue to happen.
“Everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon right now, saying, ‘The sky is falling,’” Birchmeier said. “We are all trying to figure out what's not getting done. ... but nothing’s there. We have industry-required food safety standards and protocols that must be met, and they are continuing to be met – even at the state level.”
According to Jennifer Holton, director of communications for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), MDARD and other local health departments “continue to be out every day to protect public health and the safety of the state’s food supply.”
“MDARD is inspecting grocery store and other food establishments, processing facilities and wholesale operations,” Holton wrote in an email to Michigan Farm News. “Local health departments are inspecting restaurants across the state. These inspections work to ensure food safety rules and regulations are not only being implemented, but followed to protect public health and our food.”
As part of its inspection process, Holton said MDARD inspectors “may take random samples of various food products to test for foodborne pathogens at MDARD’s Geagley Lab.”
“If a foodborne pathogen (think listeria, E.coli, salmonella for example) (is found), then MDARD has the ability to work with the company to take action to get that product out of commerce,” she said. “MDARD inspectors are not stepping in for the federal inspectors, especially as interstate commerce falls squarely under the federal agencies, but they are continuing their daily work to keep Michigan’s food safety net intact.”