WASHINGTON -- The government shutdown is endangering what America eats, food safety experts said this week, as all inspections of domestic food except meat and poultry have halted and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recalled furloughed workers to handle a salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds of people in 18 states.
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.
"This is a self-inflicted wound that is putting people's health at risk," said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn., a longtime food safety advocate.
Because the shutdown comes on top of earlier budget cuts to the agencies, she said, "you're creating the potential for a real public health crisis."
At the same time, several crucial agriculture reports used by traders and farmers have been canceled because of the shutdown, seriously disrupting commodities markets and hampering decision-making about planting.
The highest-profile report canceled because of the shutdown is World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimates, which supplies statistics on the worldwide production of crops from cotton to corn. It also provides data on other agricultural products, including meat and sugar.
"It leaves the commodities market in a bit of a fog," said Christopher Narayan, an analyst with the bank Soci??t?? G??n??rale in New York, who said investors would face difficulties in obtaining accurate information.
At the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for inspecting the bulk of food that Americans eat, the agency has gone from a goal of inspecting about 200 plants per week to none and has reduced inspections of imported food.
At the Agriculture Department, a meat and poultry hot line that consumers can call for information about food safety or to report problems is closed. At the CDC, about 68 percent of staff members were furloughed, including several epidemiologists and dozens of other workers who oversee a database that tracks food-borne illness. These staff members identify clusters of sickness linked to potentially dangerous strains of bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella, and their absences have significantly reduced the center's ability to respond to an outbreak.
Even though the agency has brought back about 30 furloughed workers to handle the salmonella outbreak, which has been linked to raw chicken, the CDC remains short-handed, center spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds said. "We're still down to a skeleton crew," she said.
Others worry that the agency is not getting its message out. "When you have an outbreak and health alert like this, you have to get this information into the hands of consumers," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington research group.
The Agriculture Department, which traced the salmonella outbreak to a poultry producer in California, has been spared the brunt of the sequestration cuts and the government shutdown. Since Upton Sinclair's classic 1906 novel "The Jungle" exposed unsanitary conditions at meatpacking plants, federal law has required inspectors to be on site at meat and poultry processing plants.
At the FDA, about 45 percent of the agency's staff members are furloughed. Food safety advocates say that even without the government shutdown and budget cuts, the agency is limited in what it can do. Under normal circumstances, the FDA inspects less than 2 percent of most imported food.
First Published October 9, 2013 9:04 PM