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Lose Your Lunch: Congressional Food Fight Imperils Food Safety

Thursday, October 10, 2013

You might want to put down your tuna sandwich before you read this. Especially if it has lettuce and tomatoes.

It turns out that it’s not just the behavior of Congress that will make you sick to your stomach. 

The Food and Drug Administration’s food inspectors have also been deemed non-essential – meaning that America’s food manufacturing plants will not be inspected until Congress decides to pass legislation to reopen the government.  

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service will continue to inspect meat and poultry, FDA’s inspectors will be at home, presumably subsisting on the meat-heavy paleo diet.

As the New York Times notes:

Offices are dark across the federal agencies charged with making sure that the fruit, vegetables, dairy products and a vast array of other domestically produced food are safe to consume. Inspectors, administrative staff, lab technicians, communications specialists and other support staff members have been sent home while lawmakers wrangle over government spending.

In an average year, FDA inspects about 20,000 food plants to help reduce the risk of food-borne illness. For every week the government remains shuttered, about 200 food plants will go without federal inspections. What’s more, the number of inspections of imported food is being slashed.

The shutdown will delay implementation of new food safety rules designed to help reduce the risk of food-borne illness, including new food safety standards for food plants and some farmers.  Those rules grew out of a series of outbreaks of foodborne-illness that led Congress to pass a new food safety law in 2010.   

Every year, roughly 1 in 6 Americans – or 48 million people – get sick from eating food, leading to 128,000 trips to the hospital and about 3,000 deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control, which plays a critical role during outbreaks, has furloughed many of the staff members who track these incidents and warn regulators, doctors, and the public. Although some CDC personnel have returned to handle a salmonella outbreak, the agency is operating with a skeleton crew.  

Buzzfeed has a great summary of seven things you should know about food safety during the shutdown, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest has a list of the ten riskiest foods regulated by FDA.

Among the riskiest? Tuna, lettuce and tomatoes.

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