Is the government shutdown making American food unsafe?


Let’s take a closer look now at another impact
that has gotten a lot of attention in the past 24 hours, what all this means for food
safety and government inspections. Amna Nawaz is here to break down what we know. AMNA NAWAZ: The Food and Drug Administration
has announced that it stopped routine food safety inspections in many cases, including
checking fruits, vegetables, some seafood and many other foods. That’s a big part of food safety in this country. However, nearly all inspectors at the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat and poultry production, are still on
the job, working without pay, and overseas inspections continue. Sarah Sorscher is the deputy director of regulatory
affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy organization
focused on food safety and healthy eating. And she joins me here now. Welcome to the “NewsHour.” SARAH SORSCHER, Center for Science in the
Public Interest: Thank you. Glad to be here. AMNA NAWAZ: So, the FDA looks and oversees
the vast majority of our food supply when they’re not in shutdown mode. What does that mean? Regularly, what are they doing to protect
our food supply? SARAH SORSCHER: Well, generally speaking,
they are out there doing about — a little over 8,000 routine unannounced inspections
a year, where they’re going into facilities that make food and they’re looking around
for potential food safety issues. They’re looking for pests. They’re looking for — to make sure employees
are following proper hygiene and have a food safety plan in place, and generally trying
to identify the kind of issues that are going to cause foodborne illness before they actually
lead to complaints and illness with consumers. AMNA NAWAZ: So, in shutdown mode, what has
changed? SARAH SORSCHER: Well, the good news is the
FDA actually announced yesterday that they’re going to try to be restarting some of their
routine inspections. But, originally, the shutdown plan had been
that they would end all of this routine work and really focus on responding to emergencies,
going in when there’s an outbreak or a recall, and only taking action in those cases. So what we have learned yesterday is that,
as of next week, hopefully, there will be starting again, at least on the highest-risk
foods, which includes cheeses, seafoods, unpasteurized juice. The kind of thing that a consumer might think
to put in their refrigerator because it’s perishable, those are the kinds of foods that
FDA will be focusing on. AMNA NAWAZ: So, does that alleviate any concerns
that there could be lapses in some of that oversight? SARAH SORSCHER: It’s certainly better to have
inspectors out there doing those inspections. I think part of the problem is that foodborne
illness can come from anywhere. We have seen outbreaks linked to peanut butter,
to flour. We have seen recalls recently with box cake
mix. So it’s important for FDA to be out there
resuming the work that it does everywhere and working on all the foods that we eat. That being said, it is great that they’re
doing the high-risk foods. And that should cover about a third of the
establishments. Those inspectors will be unpaid, which could
affect how they’re able to focus on their work and morale, but they will be doing the
job that they were doing before the shutdown. AMNA NAWAZ: So, Sarah, a lot of people saw
headlines about food safety inspections being halted as a result of the shutdown. Is there any reason for the average consumer
out there to be concerned? SARAH SORSCHER: I think there’s still a reason
for consumers to be concerned. And that concern should be greater the longer
the shutdown goes on. They — since they usually do a little over
8,000 inspections a year, that’s potentially hundreds of inspections that are not being
done during the shutdown. And the more that that happens, the more we
are at risk. AMNA NAWAZ: But that’s assuming it could go
on longer. I want to be clear about this. So far, it’s had a minimal impact, right? You said about over 8,400 inspections a year? SARAH SORSCHER: Yes, if you do the math, that’s
about 160 per week. AMNA NAWAZ: Right. SARAH SORSCHER: And the shutdown is coming
up on three weeks now. So it’s a number in the hundreds. AMNA NAWAZ: Commissioner Gottlieb, I want
to point it out, said that a few dozen that had been scheduled would have been missed
so far in the shutdown, mainly because of holiday scheduling, and so on. So, so far, he’s insisting the impact would
have been minimal, there’s nothing to worry about. I want to ask you about a larger point, though. Politico’s senior food and agriculture reporter
was talking about this earlier. She’s been covering the industry for years. And she mentioned, yes, the FDA does 50 high-risk
inspections a week for soft cheeses, seafoods, that category, 160 low-risk inspections week. But she also points out there are tens of
thousands of food facilities that exist in the U.S., really saying that our food safety
isn’t inspected as much as we think it is. SARAH SORSCHER: That’s a really good point. And even under the best of circumstances,
FDA really struggles to keep up with their workload. They regulate 80 percent of our food supply,
and they have very few resources to do that work. And one of the things that they have been
doing, at least before the shutdown, was working to implement the Food Safety Modernization
Act and really improve the rules on our food system. And, unfortunately, a lot of that planning
work to make things better for consumers is stalled because of the shutdown as well. AMNA NAWAZ: So, so far, we can say safely
it’s had a minimal impact, the shutdown, at least when it comes to our food safety. You mentioned, the longer it goes on, there
is a concern. Very briefly, what are those concerns? SARAH SORSCHER: Yes, I think the fact that
the shutdown started over the holidays means that a lot of inspections wouldn’t have been
done in any case. As the shutdown goes on, the inspections that
are not done means that inspectors are not out there flagging issues that they otherwise
would have seen. They’re looking for vermin. They’re looking for potential filth in our
food. They’re looking for microbes — the types
of things that could cause contamination that could lead to foodborne illness. And so we should all be thinking more about
our food supply under the shutdown. And we should be actively working to get our
public officials to come to a solution, so we can get those inspectors back there on
the job and paid for their work. AMNA NAWAZ: Nothing to be concerned about
immediately, though? I want to be clear about that. SARAH SORSCHER: We don’t think that consumers
should change any of their practices with respect to food. You shouldn’t be switching the foods you eat. There’s no reason to think that your foods
are less safe under the shutdown. But, as the shutdown drags on, it could have
an impact on food safety, and we need to make sure that it ends swiftly. AMNA NAWAZ: Sarah Sorscher of the Center for
Science in the Public Interest, thank you for being here. SARAH SORSCHER: Thank you for inviting me.

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