Government Shutdown Stops Routine Food Safety Inspections

Here’s what the deadlock in Washington means for your stomach.
Food such as romaine lettuce isn't being inspected

The fallout from the government shutdown has expanded beyond the bank accounts of federal employees and to your kitchen, with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suspending routine inspections meant to ensure the safety of what the country eats and drinks due to lack of funds. In a series of tweets on Wednesday, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb attempted to reassure the public that his agency was "taking steps to expand the scope of food safety surveillance inspections we’re doing during the shutdown to make sure we continue inspecting high risk food facilities," but the news is likely to cause some squeamish decisions in the grocery aisle on the part of shoppers.

What foods are being inspected during the government shutdown?

One of the most important functions of the FDA is to send qualified inspectors to food production centers to ensure the food in your fridge and cupboards is free from contamination from insects, rodents and bacteria that could sicken you. Because Congress did not appropriate funds to the FDA prior to the shutdown, about 41% of its workers have been furloughed, causing the delay or suspension of the 160 routine inspections the FDA supervises each week.

If Gottlieb can somehow bring back enough furloughed inspectors to resume inspections, they will be focused on what the FDA deems as "high-risk" foods. These include (but aren't limited to):

  • Seafood
  • Custard-filled bakery products
  • Dairy products, including cheese and cheese products
  • Sandwiches
  • Pre-prepared salads
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Infant formula

The current lack of inspection of these food products means an outbreak of E.coli (such as the one which recently contaminated romaine lettuce) or some other hazardous contaminant might not be caught before spreading to the public.

What you can do to minimize the risk

While the FDA has suspended routine inspections of domestic food production centers, it continues its work of guaranteeing the safety of imported food. If you shudder at the thought that the eggs you planned on cooking for breakfast tomorrow may have made it to your fridge without the proper inspection, you could always try and find a local grocery that imports all of its food from abroad. These tend to be more expensive than the local Piggly Wiggly, so make sure to bring with you a credit card that maximizes your rewards. You should also note that the Department of Agriculture continues to inspect meat and poultry, so now you have an excuse to indulge your inner carnivore and have steak tonight.

James Ellis

James Ellis is a Staff Writer for ValuePenguin, covering credit, banking, travel and other personal finance topics. He previously wrote for Newsweek, Men's Health, and other nationally-published magazines.

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