Food

How a government shutdown will impact food safety, nutrition

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Food safety and nutrition programs will be hit if the U.S. government runs out of money by the end of Saturday.

If Congress fails to reach a deal to fund the government, federal food safety programs will pause their normal operations and continue only what the government deems essential: preventing hazardous outbreaks.

“It’s so difficult to face where we are today with an extreme House Republican effort to recklessly steer our government towards a preventable shutdown that would put many of the critical services that we care about deeply at USDA at risk,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at a White House press briefing on Monday. 

He added that if there is an urgent situation during a shutdown that requires lab analysis “that may impact and affect our ability to detect animal diseases as quickly as we need to, which, in turn, could affect the supply of food.”

The FDA said it will continue to manage recalls and foodborne illness-based outbreaks. The agency will maintain regulatory inspection of meat, poultry and egg products for foodborne outbreaks, and roughly 7,700 out of 8,600 employees considered “essential to the functioning of food safety” will keep working, Food Safety News reported.

During the last shutdown in late 2018 and early 2019, these operations continued, but inspectors were not paid during the furlough period. That shutdown — which lasted 35 days, the longest in more than four decades — prevented the government from performing proactive inspections of food, former FDA deputy commissioner Frank Yiannas told the news publication.

The prospect of federal food assistance programs administered by the USDA being put on hold is causing anxiety among advocates concerned about the impact on low-income adults and children.

Vilsack warned this week that the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program — which gave assistance to roughly 6.3 million people in 2022 — could run out of money in a matter of days or weeks. The USDA has a contingency plan that could prolong the program an additional day or two, he said.

“Nearly seven million women and young children depend on WIC for essential health and nutrition supports,” Kate Franken, board chair of the National WIC Association, said in a statement. “Congress can do right by them by passing the continuing resolution and then fully funding WIC in full-year appropriations legislation.”

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, formerly known as the food stamps program, will continue to serve an estimated 40 million Americans through the end of October. It could have “serious consequences” if the shutdown extends beyond that, according to Vilsack.

Meat, poultry and egg inspections will continue during the shutdown by USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, Vilsack said.

Other food inspections are handled by the FDA. In 2019, the agency temporarily halted routine inspection of fruits, vegetables and seafood. According to a plan last updated on Sept. 21, the FDA said detecting and responding to outbreaks related to foodborne illnesses will continue if the government shuts down.

Editor’s note: Christopher Doering contributed to this report.

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