Posted on October 10, 2013 · Posted in Frank Friday, P-cubed News

The federal government shutdown is now in its second week with no end in sight. The impact of the shutdown continues to be felt across the country with hundreds of thousands of federal employees on furlough and major federal agencies working at severely reduced capacity. But, the crisis in Washington is closer to home than one imagines as routine monitoring of our country’s food supply and ensuring food safety is also in jeopardy.

News reports over the last couple of days have shown that there is an outbreak of Salmonella that has sickened at least 278 people across 18 states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin. In the best of times an outbreak like this requires a rapid response: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) personnel on the ground doing inspections and working to identify the source of the problem; scientists at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) identifying the strain of bacteria causing the illness as well as monitoring and analyzing the information from states on the extent and nature of illness; communications staff at the CDC, FDA and the Department of Agriculture working with major media outlets to put out a massive consumer alert across the country. The closure of the federal government has put this entire chain of operations on indefinite hiatus. The websites for all three of these major federal agencies report a closure of services.

Consider this: The shutdown has caused the Food and Drug Administration to place 60 percent of its investigators on furlough while the Center for Disease Control has furloughed 68 percent of its staff. What this means is that the FDA cannot conduct routine domestic or international inspections of food facilities, monitor compliance or enforcement or conduct lab research, all of which are vital to public health policies and safety of our food supplies. For instance, about 20 percent of all the food that Americans eat is imported which includes 85 percent of all seafood. With the shutdown, the FDA can inspect less than 2 percent of all imported food into the country. The CDC, which runs the national food-borne detection services, has been unable to conduct any cross-state consultations or conduct the necessary epidemiological research that would help to find and control the salmonella bacterial infection from spreading especially to vulnerable groups like children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. At the Department of Agriculture, a hot line that consumers can call into to check on food safety issues is closed.

Salmonella can be a fatal disease. CDC reports that every year 48 million Americans get sick from contaminated food, although not all these are Salmonella-related. Public health departments reported that between 2009 and 2010, there were 1,527 foodborne disease outbreaks, resulting in 29,444 cases of illness, 1,184 hospitalizations, and 23 deaths. Almost half the people hospitalized were detected to have Salmonella. Beef, dairy, fish and poultry are the most common foods to be linked to recent Salmonella-related illnesses.

Ensuring food safety is an essential service that the federal government provides. It too, like the other important work that the government performs, is a part of the collateral damage as a result of partisan gridlock in Washington.

To learn more about the impact of the current political and economic crisis, please come to an upcoming student and faculty teach-in, “The Government Shutdown: Where do we go from here” at Roosevelt House on October 17th. Share your thoughts on what President Obama should do.

Follow me on Twitter: @DrSVenkateswar and engage with the Public Policy Program on social media: Like P-Cubed at Roosevelt House on Facebook and follow @PcubedatRH on twitter.

Be well.

Best wishes,