The partial government shutdown has crippled the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s food safety surveillance efforts, pausing many domestic inspections and potentially putting more Americans at risk of contracting food-borne illnesses such as E. coli, salmonella and norovirus.
“There’s a lot of ready-to-eat food that the FDA oversees that consumers ultimately have to trust doesn’t have a pathogen on it that can kill you,” says Seattle-based food-borne illness lawyer Bill Marler. “We need to get people back to doing their jobs.”
About 41% of the FDA’s workforce is currently furloughed, slowing a variety of agency functions including routine domestic food inspections. But in a series of tweets Wednesday, FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said he is “taking steps” to restore inspections of high-risk facilities, including those that produce seafood, soft cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, infant formula and some prepared foods.
In an average week, the FDA would complete about 160 domestic food inspections, and roughly a third would be considered high-risk, Gottlieb said.
Overseas food inspections are still taking place during the shutdown; imported goods make up about 15% of the total U.S. food supply, and about 50% of fresh fruits, 20% of fresh vegetables and 80% of seafood products, according to FoodSafety.gov. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture is still running its domestic meat and poultry inspections, though the New York Times reports that employees are working without pay.
FDA inspections related to drugs and medical devices are also continuing, relying on user fees rather than Congressional appropriations.
Despite the lapse in inspections, the FDA was announcing new food recalls as recently as this week. Due to the number of furloughed workers, agency representatives did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for clarification about the process behind those recalls, but Jaydee Hanson, policy director at the Center for Food Safety, says it’s likely that these recalls were triggered voluntarily by individual producers.
Marler says the lack of inspections could logically lead to higher rates of food-borne illness in the U.S. “Maybe not yet, but if this limps along the way it looks like it’s going to, there’s no question that our food supply is going to be at risk,” Marler says.
Food-borne illnesses are common even under normal conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that some 48 million Americans are sickened by contaminated food each year, and 3,000 die from their illnesses.
To reduce risk, Hanson says Americans might want to avoid eating raw produce — which carries a higher chance of transmitting bacteria — when possible, “at least until the government is up and running.”
“We’ve done a good job of getting people to eat more fresh vegetables and fruits,” Hanson says. “But it’s winter time. Soups may be a good option.”
Another concern, Marler and Hanson say, is that federal regulators might not even realize outbreaks are happening if furloughs impede agency operations. While the CDC generally handles the public health side of food-borne illness outbreaks, it works closely with the FDA to trace outbreaks back to their initial source. If the FDA isn’t able to carry out its normal functions, Marler says, the CDC might not even know there are outbreaks going on.
The FDA, for example, was a key investigator in two recent E. coli outbreaks associated with romaine lettuce — the more recent of which the CDC declared over on Wednesday. Marler says he worries that the shutdown could affect the FDA’s ability to conduct inspections that could potentially prevent future outbreaks, such as early-growing-season check-ins with farms in previously implicated areas such as Yuma, Ariz.
“The ability get people into the field quickly would be seriously impaired [if the shutdown continues],” Hanson agrees. “They’re not getting the reports.”
The partial government shutdown has also disrupted other health-related activities, including scientific research. And the federal nutrition assistance program, SNAP, is only funded through February, raising concerns about the possible long-term implications if the shutdown continues.