On December 22, 2018, broad swaths of the U.S. government shut down indefinitely. With the government partially shut down, many public health agencies are constrained in their ability to perform routine compliance and enforcement activities. In the case of FDA and USDA, as long as the shutdown persists, some of the agency's routine food safety activities will be put on hold.
So, what does this mean for food safety?
Broadly speaking, much of FDA’s and USDA's mission-critical work will continue in some form.
With respect to FDA, this includes activities deemed vital to the health and safety of Americans. According to an HHS Contingency Staffing, FDA will continue essential activities such as responding to emergencies, managing high-risk recalls, pursuing criminal enforcement work and civil investigations related to imminent threats to human health or life, reviewing import entries to determine potential risks to health, and responding to other critical public health issues. The FDA will also continue to address outbreaks related to foodborne illness and infectious diseases. While these activities will continue, the agency's overall effectiveness will likely remain somewhat constrained.
Activities that are not likely to have an immediate impact on the health and safety of consumers, however, have ceased altogether. In turn, FDA has furloughed 42% of its employees without pay.
Of primary concern, from a food safety standpoint, is that until the shutdown is complete, FDA will not be supporting routine regulatory and compliance activities. FDA will pause, for instance, routine establishment inspections, and many ongoing research activities. FDA will also be unable to accept user fees assessed for FY 2019 or accept any regulatory submissions for FY 2019 that require a user fee payment.
The risks posed by the shutdown are limited in the near term. While it remains worrisome that FDA will cease routine compliance activities related to food, a short-term cessation of those activities is unlikely to lead to any immediate food safety crisis. A larger concern, however, is what the shutdown means for the 40% of employees who are furloughed without pay, while politicians continue to receive a paycheck.
This morning, January 3, 2018, Scott Gottlieb, tweeted the following:
We know the shutdown imposes hardships on our workforce. We're taking steps ti try and mitigate personal impacts wherever we can. I'm grateful for the continued contributions of employees who are working through the shutdown, as well as the commitment of those who are furloughed.
Things are similar for USDA. About 40% of USDA employees are furloughed, and certain USDA activities will be either shut down or reduced. USDA activities, however, relating to ongoing routine inspection services, inspection of imports, and law enforcement will continue. This means that, for now, approximately 61% of USDA employees are exempted from shutdown activities, although the percentage will decrease and activities reduced as available funding decreases. The details of the USDA shut-down plan can be found here.
This is a difficult time for both FDA and USDA employees, whether furloughed or not. We wish them well as they deal with the uncertainty caused by the continuing shutdown.
As we enter the new year, this is the perfect time for the industry to step up its food-safety game. Indeed, when it comes to food safety, the terms republican and democrat are meaningless. Our number one priority is, and must always be, to provide safe and wholesome food to our fellow Americans, and the world as a whole.
As the shutdown continues to play out, we would like to thank you all for continuing to do the good work that you do.