Is the government shutdown making American food unsafe?

Nation

Due to the shutdown, the Food and Drug Administration has stopped safety inspections of foods such as fruits, vegetables and seafood, while inspectors overseeing meat and poultry production remain on the job without pay. What does this reduced monitoring mean for the safety of our nation's food supply? Sarah Sorscher of the Center for Science in the Public Interest joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's take a closer look now at another impact that has gotten a lot of attention in the past 24 hours, what all this means for food safety and government inspections.

    Amna Nawaz is here to break down what we know.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Food and Drug Administration has announced that it stopped routine food safety inspections in many cases, including checking fruits, vegetables, some seafood and many other foods. That's a big part of food safety in this country.

    However, nearly all inspectors at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat and poultry production, are still on the job, working without pay, and overseas inspections continue.

    Sarah Sorscher is the deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy organization focused on food safety and healthy eating.

    And she joins me here now.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Sarah Sorscher:

    Thank you. Glad to be here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, the FDA looks and oversees the vast majority of our food supply when they're not in shutdown mode. What does that mean? Regularly, what are they doing to protect our food supply?

  • Sarah Sorscher:

    Well, generally speaking, they are out there doing about — a little over 8,000 routine unannounced inspections a year, where they're going into facilities that make food and they're looking around for potential food safety issues.

    They're looking for pests. They're looking for — to make sure employees are following proper hygiene and have a food safety plan in place, and generally trying to identify the kind of issues that are going to cause foodborne illness before they actually lead to complaints and illness with consumers.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, in shutdown mode, what has changed?

  • Sarah Sorscher:

    Well, the good news is the FDA actually announced yesterday that they're going to try to be restarting some of their routine inspections.

    But, originally, the shutdown plan had been that they would end all of this routine work and really focus on responding to emergencies, going in when there's an outbreak or a recall, and only taking action in those cases.

    So what we have learned yesterday is that, as of next week, hopefully, there will be starting again, at least on the highest-risk foods, which includes cheeses, seafoods, unpasteurized juice.

    The kind of thing that a consumer might think to put in their refrigerator because it's perishable, those are the kinds of foods that FDA will be focusing on.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, does that alleviate any concerns that there could be lapses in some of that oversight?

  • Sarah Sorscher:

    It's certainly better to have inspectors out there doing those inspections.

    I think part of the problem is that foodborne illness can come from anywhere. We have seen outbreaks linked to peanut butter, to flour. We have seen recalls recently with box cake mix. So it's important for FDA to be out there resuming the work that it does everywhere and working on all the foods that we eat.

    That being said, it is great that they're doing the high-risk foods. And that should cover about a third of the establishments. Those inspectors will be unpaid, which could affect how they're able to focus on their work and morale, but they will be doing the job that they were doing before the shutdown.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Sarah, a lot of people saw headlines about food safety inspections being halted as a result of the shutdown. Is there any reason for the average consumer out there to be concerned?

  • Sarah Sorscher:

    I think there's still a reason for consumers to be concerned. And that concern should be greater the longer the shutdown goes on.

    They — since they usually do a little over 8,000 inspections a year, that's potentially hundreds of inspections that are not being done during the shutdown. And the more that that happens, the more we are at risk.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But that's assuming it could go on longer. I want to be clear about this. So far, it's had a minimal impact, right? You said about over 8,400 inspections a year?

  • Sarah Sorscher:

    Yes, if you do the math, that's about 160 per week.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Right.

  • Sarah Sorscher:

    And the shutdown is coming up on three weeks now. So it's a number in the hundreds.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Commissioner Gottlieb, I want to point it out, said that a few dozen that had been scheduled would have been missed so far in the shutdown, mainly because of holiday scheduling, and so on.

    So, so far, he's insisting the impact would have been minimal, there's nothing to worry about.

    I want to ask you about a larger point, though. Politico's senior food and agriculture reporter was talking about this earlier. She's been covering the industry for years. And she mentioned, yes, the FDA does 50 high-risk inspections a week for soft cheeses, seafoods, that category, 160 low-risk inspections week.

    But she also points out there are tens of thousands of food facilities that exist in the U.S., really saying that our food safety isn't inspected as much as we think it is.

  • Sarah Sorscher:

    That's a really good point.

    And even under the best of circumstances, FDA really struggles to keep up with their workload. They regulate 80 percent of our food supply, and they have very few resources to do that work.

    And one of the things that they have been doing, at least before the shutdown, was working to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act and really improve the rules on our food system. And, unfortunately, a lot of that planning work to make things better for consumers is stalled because of the shutdown as well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, so far, we can say safely it's had a minimal impact, the shutdown, at least when it comes to our food safety.

    You mentioned, the longer it goes on, there is a concern. Very briefly, what are those concerns?

  • Sarah Sorscher:

    Yes, I think the fact that the shutdown started over the holidays means that a lot of inspections wouldn't have been done in any case.

    As the shutdown goes on, the inspections that are not done means that inspectors are not out there flagging issues that they otherwise would have seen. They're looking for vermin. They're looking for potential filth in our food. They're looking for microbes — the types of things that could cause contamination that could lead to foodborne illness.

    And so we should all be thinking more about our food supply under the shutdown. And we should be actively working to get our public officials to come to a solution, so we can get those inspectors back there on the job and paid for their work.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nothing to be concerned about immediately, though? I want to be clear about that.

  • Sarah Sorscher:

    We don't think that consumers should change any of their practices with respect to food. You shouldn't be switching the foods you eat. There's no reason to think that your foods are less safe under the shutdown.

    But, as the shutdown drags on, it could have an impact on food safety, and we need to make sure that it ends swiftly.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Sarah Sorscher of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, thank you for being here.

  • Sarah Sorscher:

    Thank you for inviting me.

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Is the government shutdown making American food unsafe? first appeared on the PBS NewsHour website.

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