One troubling casualty of the federal government shutdown -- more troubling even than the blackout of the panda cam at the National Zoo -- is the suspension of the Food and Drug Administration's food safety inspection program.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service will continue manning every meat production facility with full-time inspectors, even as many government programs are halted. But the FDA actually oversees the safety of the vast majority of the country's food industry. And according to a memo released by the Department of Health and Human Services, the bulk of FDA food inspectors have been deemed non-essential, so will inspect few if any food facilities until Congress and the president agree on a bill to fund the federal government.
In fiscal 2011, the FDA coordinated or conducted inspections of about 20,000 food facilities for compliance with safety regulations. (The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act actually requires U.S. inspectors to check almost 35,000 facilities a year, but funding has not been provided to meet that mandate.) The number of past inspections suggests FDA officials normally inspect about 80 facilities per business day. So, for every day the government doesn't work, approximately 80 food facilities will go without federal inspections. If the shutdown lasts until Oct. 17, 960 facilities may go without U.S. inspections.
A spokesman from the FDA contacted The Huffington Post on Wednesday to note that a portion of these inspections would be conducted by the agency's partners in state agriculture and public health departments. But he couldn't say how big a portion, or whether the FDA would continue, during the shutdown, to pay state agencies their normal fee for inspections conducted on the FDA's behalf.
To get a sense of what that means, let's take a look at 23 food safety warning letters the FDA sent to food facilities that failed inspections. They reveal gnarly conditions at major food manufacturing facilities, including cooking implements covered in mold and stored in brown, soiled water at a Detroit donut factory; high levels of illegal drug residues in veal from a farm in upstate New York; and flies buzzing around a tortilla factory in Hagerstown, Md..
The warning letters give the facilities in question a chance to correct sanitation mistakes before they cause serious outbreaks of foodborne illness. If the commands in a warning letter are not obeyed, the FDA has the authority to punish, or even shutter, the facility in question.
These warning letters are sent to just a small fraction of all facilities that are inspected, and not all of these facilities have infractions that lead directly to illness. That means it's impossible to say whether cancelled food safety inspections will directly lead to food consumers getting sick.
But the threat of random government inspections keeps food producers vigilant. If they know the FDA is unlikely to pop in unannounced for a few weeks, they may be more likely to cut corners on food safety.
For this reason, food safety advocates called on Congress to end the government shutdown as soon as possible, or, barring that, to fund food safety programs with a separate bill.
"Speaker Boehner should not let food safety and other vital government functions be held hostage just because an extreme faction in his caucus opposes the health care reform law," Caroline Smith deWaal, head of food safety at the Center for Science for Public Interest, said in a statement. "The government's food safety functions are far more pressing than the unrealistic demands being made by petulant extremists in the House."
CLARIFICATION: This post has been updated to reflect information provided to The Huffington Post by FDA officials after its initial publication.