The FDA has to stop doing all of its routine food inspections because of the shutdown — and that could start making people sick.
The harmful effects of Trump's government shutdown are widespread. Safety is already compromised at airports, with TSA agents quitting and airline pilots becoming increasingly worried about the safety of their passengers. Trash is piling up in national parks, and thousands of people living in low-income housing may soon be out on the street.
But not even these crises are likely to be as far-reaching as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suspending all of its routine domestic food inspections. The FDA oversees about 80 percent of the country's food supply, which means every American is now at higher risk of eating contaminated food.
Hundreds of food inspectors were furloughed at the start of the shutdown. That meant that the FDA hasn't been able to perform the roughly 160 routine food inspections it conducts each week.
This is bad enough generally, but especially frightening for food that is at high risk of contamination, including vegetables, fruits, seafood, and soft cheeses. And those inspections were stopped too.
Now the FDA Commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, says that he is "working on a plan" to bring employees back to inspect those facilities that handle high-risk food or have a history of food safety problems, perhaps next week. But that doesn't take care of the fact that those facilities have gone uninspected thus far.
Things were bad for food safety even before the FDA went down to a shutdown skeleton crew. 2018 saw 22 food safety investigations by the CDC, the highest number of alerts in over ten years. One of the most widespread of these — an E. coli outbreak that killed five people — was possibly caused by contaminated irrigation water, as the lettuce farm was located near a large cattle feedlot.
The Obama administration was set to impose new rules in January 2018 that would have provided greater oversight of irrigation water. Under Trump, however, the FDA decided to suspend those rules, which meant that the FDA largely stopped checking to see whether irrigation water was contaminated with manure.
Prior to the shutdown, the FDA was already a victim of Trump's mania for deregulation — his assumption that everything is best when there is less oversight. When you combine that mindset with Trump's childish insistence on keeping the government closed over a wall no one wants, you get a country where things like shellfish are going uninspected.
Foodborne illnesses are widespread even when the FDA is fully staffed, sickening millions and killing thousands. When you take away the agency's ability to inspect food effectively — even just for a short while — there's no way that number isn't going to spike dramatically.
Now, all we can do is wait for the fallout.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.