Opinion

Tomorrow some of the fuzzy math related to the government’s operational status will come into clear focus for many so called non-essential federal employees when they don’t get paid.

Nuances of federal funding mean some administrators and employees have been and will continue to work and will continue to receive their regular pay. Those people include presidential appointees who have been confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Other programs and employees are continuing to operate because they are covered by previously approved budget legislation, such as the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriation.

However, in a statement posted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is the parent agency over the Food and Drug Administration, federal officials said in the event of a partial shutdown “FDA would be unable to support some routine regulatory and compliance activities. This includes some medical product, animal drug, and most food related activities. FDA will also pause routine establishment inspections…”

The FDA has indeed “paused” all routine domestic food facility inspections because of the partial government shutdown.

Some FDA and USDA inspections and food safety programs are continuing, but most of the employees involved are “on call” without pay, which means they are expected to work their regular shifts even though there is no end in sight to the budget standoff between President Trump and Democrats. Some of the federal food safety workers who aren’t getting paid tomorrow but are continuing to work anyway are USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors in meat and poultry plants. Federal law requires the private businesses to shutdown operations if there aren’t government inspectors on the job.

Both the FSIS and the Food and Drug Administration are continuing to post some recall notices, and the agencies’ contingency operation plans call for the continuation of investigation and enforcement activities related to foodborne illnesses. But, the payroll checks for many of the people executing those contingency plans aren’t in the mail — and likely won’t be for at least another month.

Communications and public affairs staff at USDA, FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are scarce at this point. That’s a minor difficulty in my day as a news person, and I know some of them are on call and will fulfill their civil servant duties if recalls or foodborne illnesses come up. But, I have to wonder how many consumers are contacting those and other federal offices only to get the same auto-responses that have turned up in my inbox:

“Due to the absence of either an FY 2019 appropriation or Continuing Resolution for FDA, I am out of the office on furlough status and I am not able to read or respond to your message. If you require immediate assistance, please call (or email) …”

“Thank you for your inquiry. All of the FDA’s work is important, but only some of it is permitted to continue during a lapse in appropriations. We are reviewing details of your request so that we can determine if your inquiry falls under an excepted or exempt category of work. If it does not fall into an excepted or exempted category, we will respond to your inquiry after enactment of either an FY 2019 appropriation or Continuing Resolution for the FDA. For more information, please see HHS’ FY2019 Contingency Staffing Plan for Operations in the Absence of Enacted Annual Appropriations: https://www.hhs.gov/about/budget/fy-2019-hhs-contingency-staffing-plan/index.html.”

My query to the U.S. Department of Agriculture yesterday didn’t even generate an auto-response.

Tweet all about it
With communications staffers on furlough, Twitter seems to be in play even more than usual.

With an increasing number of mainstream media reports about the shutdown’s impact on federal food safety services, the FDA’s leader took to the Twittersphere to offer reassurances. The agency oversees 80 percent of the food consumed in the United States.

Scott Gottlieb

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a Tweet that he’s working on getting food safety testing programs for high-risk foods and facilities back up and running. The rumbling in the halls at FDA indicates the commissioner hopes to have some food safety measures back in play next week. In interviews yesterday, Gottlieb said more than 50 high-risk inspections have been canceled already. He wants the authority to call back about 150 furloughed inspectors to focus on high-risk facilities.

“We wouldn’t have conducted inspections during the 2 weeks around Christmas and New Years, so this is really the first week where there might have been *some* inspections postponed while we put in place mechanisms to continue high risk food surveillance inspections during shutdown,” Gottlieb said in one of a series of Tweets on Wednesday.

“… 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.

“… Commodities deemed high risk include, but aren’t limited to: modified atmosphere packaged products; acidified and low acid canned foods; seafood; custard filled bakery products; dairy products including soft, semi-soft, soft ripened cheese and cheese products, unpasteurized juices; sprouts ready-to-eat; fresh fruits and vegetables and processed fruits and vegetables; spices; shell eggs; sandwiches; prepared salads; infant formula; and medical foods.”

Gottlieb and other federal officials have been quick to point out that the FDA is continuing with its normal inspection routine for imported food, as it has been since the partial shutdown began on Dec. 21, 2018. However, that mantra hasn’t included the fact that the agency only inspects about 2 percent of imports when the government is fully operational.

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Photo of Coral Beach Coral Beach

Managing Editor Coral Beach is a print journalist with more than 30 years experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, trade publications and freelance clients including the Kansas City Star, the Independence Examiner and Land Line Magazine. Before joining Food Safety News, Beach was a reporter for The Packer newspaper, an online and broadsheet trade publication covering the fresh produce industry in North America. During her time at The Packer, Beach specialized in food safety topics related to legislation, regulation, recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks. A Jayhawk by birth and education, Beach earned her bachelor’s of science in journalism from the University of Kansas. She enjoys playing trumpet in a community concert band and hanging our with her sister Sandy Beach at the beach house.