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Partial government shutdown is giving federal food safety a stress test

The Alliance for A Stronger FDA, a non-profit organization that has been rattling the fiscal cages in Washington D.C. for more than a decade, isn’t buying the line that the partial government shutdown is a “no harm, no foul” event for federal food safety.
With the partial shutdown now in its 18th day, everybody’s had time to think about how this all is going to play out. During the stalled budget process, three federal agencies involved in food safety are continuing key operations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are not shut down. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) continues to provide uninterrupted inspection services at more than 6,200 meat and poultry facilities. And many employees at the Food and Drug Administration are not furloughed because of their essential functions, from investigations to imports.
Further, local health departments are the front line agencies when it comes to looking out for foodborne illnesses. Those 2,700 agencies are funded by various local governments and the states. In other words, our somewhat disjoined system might be working to our favor during this shutdown.
But if the shutdown continues through the end of this week, and becomes the longest in history, it might not be that simple.
In a five-page “toolkit” for the media, the Alliance suggests food safety is being eroded.
“We know that food safety will be particularly hard hit, including the furloughing of workers in charge of routine inspections, guidance development and also, we assume from staffing training and technical assistance programs (such as) assistance to industry in complying with the FSMA requirements,” according to the Alliance toolkit.
Those functions are “almost exclusively” funded by appropriations, according to the budget-savvy group. It says FDA will be staffed to work outbreaks, high-risk recalls, and imports.
While “essential employees” at USDA, FDA, and at other unfunded agencies are working, but won’t get paid until the shutdown ends, some are getting creative. FDA reportedly has extended government cards to cover more travel expenses for employees whose work requires road trips. The advantages are the employee does not have to carry the expense and government credit cards have a 120-day period before payment is due.
The partial government shutdown began on Dec. 22, 2018, and concerns only those agencies not included in an appropriation or continuing resolution.
The FDA furloughed 7, 053 employees or about 41 percent of the agency’s 17,397 employees. In addition to outbreaks and high-risk recalls, FDA is continuing to do criminal and civil investigations, import screening, and responding to critical public health issues. The U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, about 1,100 FDA employees, are not subject to furlough and will work through the shutdown.
Another 6,900 FDA employees at the beginning of “the lapse period” were able to continue working because of “user fee” coverage that will exist for a while. Both the FDA and USDA websites are not getting much in the way of new material, but both agencies are publishing recalls.
Meanwhile, the political saga over the porous southern border continues with a Presidential Address tonight at 9 p.m. EST and a White House tour to peer at Mexico tomorrow.
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