Longest-ever US shutdown stalls agriculture and food inspection

By Beth Newhart

- Last updated on GMT

The FDA is recalling inspectors to perform critical, high-risk food safety inspections during the shutdown. Pic: ©GettyImages/Bill Chizek
The FDA is recalling inspectors to perform critical, high-risk food safety inspections during the shutdown. Pic: ©GettyImages/Bill Chizek

Related tags Government shutdown Fda Usda Agriculture

The US government’s partial shutdown has entered its fifth week without a compromise in sight. Dairy farmers, producers and consumers alike are being impacted by the USDA’s and FDA’s limited resources in the interim.

After the government shut down on December 22 due to disputes over President Trump’s border wall funding, the effects have been felt throughout the country. About one-quarter of the government has been out of commission for more than four weeks.

More than 400,000 federal employees are either furloughed from their jobs or working without pay, and several national parks have closed due to waste pileup. The loss of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is hampering craft beer production​ and airports are struggling to get by with unpaid TSA agents and air traffic controllers.

Agriculture woes

The agriculture industry is taking a hit because of the shuttering of local Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices. Responsible for services such as the facilitation of loans and payments, farmers have not been able to receive money owed to them by the government, whether through bailout programs or operating loans.

This is resulting in a shortage of funds, labor layoffs and mounting debt. The USDA announced last week that certain FSA offices would be open January 17, 18 and 22 with limited FSA staff services to help mitigate the crisis, though it’s expected to make little impact if the shutdown continues.

There were also important provisions in the major Farm Bill that Trump signed in December allowing for mental health services for farmers struggling with depression and stress. But the development of and accessibility to these programs stalled during the shutdown.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has been promoting the USDA ‘Be Prepared’ site​ that provides updates and resources for employees feeling the shutdown’s effects, including information about financial help, legal advice and counseling services. 

Restarting inspections

Beyond farming, the continued safety of food has been called into question. FDA food inspectors have been furloughed in the shutdown, and for several weeks it’s been unclear which inspections were still being carried out and by whom.

Last week, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that the agency would be restarting inspections on high-risk foods, including dairy products, infant formula, seafood and fresh fruits and vegetables. About 150 furloughed workers were recalled, and most are remaining unpaid for their work.

The inspection of meat, poultry and processed egg products is conducted by the USDA, not the FDA. This service has not stopped during the shutdown as it is considered essential to public health.

Gottlieb has been very vocal about inspection process updates, and released several related statements on Twitter throughout the last week, revealing that “more staff could be on the way depending on needs.”

FDA statements

“We’ve been recalling inspectors to perform critical, high risk food safety inspections. We’ve been asked how many dedicated colleagues are currently working on these unpaid assignments. More people are on the way. Here’s a current snapshot of our field resources:

So far we’ve called back about 100 investigators and 35 supervisors to conduct and support domestic food surveillance inspections of high risk products. These professionals are in addition to FDA staff who were already working high-risk inspections, like foreign food assignments.

In addition, at FDA’s Office of Import and Enforcement Operations, which cover International Mail Facilities and ports of entry, we have about 450 FDA staff in the field - including investigators, compliance experts and supervisors - supporting these critical safety operations.”

About 31% of the domestic inspections the FDA typically completes in a week is considered high-risk. Facilities that manufacture food products like cookies and crackers are not being routinely inspected during the shutdown.

“We’re deeply grateful for the FDA professional staff that continue to carry on this mission unpaid, while also incurring expenses on their personal government credit cards for travel. We’re doing everything we can to support them as they protect American consumers,”​ Gottlieb said.

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1 comment

Terrorist Administration

Posted by F. Tracy Schonrock,

Holding hostages and slavery are terrorist actions. What is being done to dedicated federal employees is morally reprehensible. These employees have no ability to change the political motivations of the white house.

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