Food safety worries linger even as government shutdown ends

By: - January 26, 2019 12:42 am

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Updated, 8:15 p.m.

The longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history finally ended on Friday, but some impacts, like food safety, could linger.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration dramatically scaled back food inspections due to the partial government shutdown that’s lasted 35 days. President Trump announced a deal to reopen the government Friday afternoon. Even though the government is set to reopen, food that did not go through typical inspections during the shutdown is on grocery store shelves now — and likely will be for days and weeks to come.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

State officials and grocery retailer groups tried to reassure shoppers, but not all were convinced. Consumer advocacy groups said the potential for more foodborne illness increased as the shutdown dragged on.

The Michigan Advance previously reported that produce grown in the U.S. was not being inspected by the FDA because workers who would normally do so were furloughed.

Last week, largely unpaid inspections at some facilities were brought back. That could include some farms or packaging centers handling fresh fruits and vegetables that are deemed “high risk,” according to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

“This work is being done by an inspectorate that’s largely going unpaid,” Gottlieb said on Twitter. “These men and women are the tip of the spear in our consumer protection mission. They’re the very front line. And they’re on the job. The entire nation owes them gratitude. I’m inspired by their dedication.”

But even with some inspections back, food safety experts still said the government shutdown placed shoppers at a greater risk of foodborne illness.

“As the partial shutdown [dragged] on, it seems intuitive that the lack of inspection activity by the agency could have increasingly negative consequences for food safety,” said Leslie Bourquin, a professor and food safety specialist with the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at Michigan State University.

But those with organizations for major out-of-state retailers, Michigan farmers and nongovernmental food-safety auditing groups argued an uptick in illness was unlikely.

High-risk foods include seafood, bakery products with custard, dairy products such as soft and semi-soft cheese, unpasteurized juices, fresh fruits and vegetables, processed fruits and vegetables, spices, shell eggs, sandwiches, prepared salads, infant formula and medical foods, according to Gottlieb.

The Advance talked this week with Vince Radke, president of the Denver-based National Environmental Health Association, before the government reopened.

“I wish I could tell people, ‘Yeah it’s still safe,’ but I can’t do that,” he said. “I think there’s more risk, and it’s less safe than it was before, because we’re missing that extra layer of protection — that inspection layer that we had before.”

Even after some inspectors were brought back at high risk facilities, “It’s still not full capacity,” he said.

While meats, poultry and foreign imports were still federally inspected during the shutdown, safety inspections at U.S. farms growing fruits and vegetables or packing facilities handling them lagged for at least two weeks, according to the Michigan Farm Bureau and other food experts. It’s unclear if any FDA inspections were planned and canceled during that time period.

Michigan does not grow much produce in the winter outside of greenhouses, but produce is still grown in southern states and potentially available for Michigan shoppers.

For example, October to January is early orange season in Florida. The state harvests other produce during the winter months, too.

California, meanwhile, harvests cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, citrus fruits, peas, potatoes, and many other fresh fruits and vegetables, according to a San Diego County Farm Bureau harvest calendar. Fresno County, north of San Diego, picks broccoli and citrus fruits in December and January.

Inspections at high-risk facilities were brought back, but that still only accounts for about one-third of the inspections the FDA typically performs.

Prior to the return last week of some inspectors, the FDA had halted two-thirds of its food inspections for about two weeks, according to the Washington Post and other national reports.

Gottlieb has said the agency was simply not scheduling inspections during that time. And while the FDA brought back some inspections at high-risk facilities, it was still not operating at normal capacity during the shutdown, experts say.

Retailers aimed to soothe worries

The Food Marketing Institute, which represents major grocery retailers, said third-party inspectors were still working diligently to make sure food remained safe to eat during scaled-back federal inspections staffed by mostly unpaid workers.

The Michigan Farm Bureau, which represents in-state farmers, offered the same argument.

“Food retailers and suppliers continue to do what they always do to keep the food safe that is in their control,” said Heather Garlich, a spokeswoman for FMI. “Namely, maintain their food safety action plans, guard supply chain controls, perform routine retail food safety training and work to relay critical food safety information to their customers.

“The message to consumers is that food safety continues to be food retailer’s greatest priority despite the government shutdown,” Garlich added.

Major Michigan grocers, such as Meijer and Costco, remained silent on if scaled-back food inspections put shoppers at risk.

Kroger foods were still being inspected internally, according to corporate affairs manager Rachel Hurst.

“We have a team of trained quality assurance inspectors in our facilities that inspect every load of produce that comes into the building,” Hurst said. “The Kroger specs and requirements for all fresh produce meet or exceed the FDA guidelines for quality produce inspection.”

Third-party audits were “very comprehensive,” said Stan Hazan, a regulatory affairs and association program senior director at NSF International. The Ann Arbor-based nonprofit advocates for third-party food auditing.

“There shouldn’t be a significant impact on food safety risks,” Hazan said. “In my mind, all factors considered, the increase in risk is small at this point, but impossible to verify.”

Several Okemos grocery shoppers out on Wednesday evening had not heard of the issue at all and said it has not yet impacted the way they shop.

“I’ve got no opinion until I know exactly what’s not being inspected and how decreased it’s been. I don’t knee-jerk react my opinions,” said Dewey Longuski, who said he works in food safety at Michigan State University. “I’m more concerned about the people not getting paid.”

Some experts who disagree on the potential for increased foodborne illness also questioned whether unpaid inspectors who remained on the job were as thorough as properly-compensated ones.

“And so what does that do to the quality of inspection?” asked Thomas Gremillion, food policy director at the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Federation of America. “With these routine inspections being suspended, that definitely seems like it’s not going to help food safety.”

State response

At 35 days, the federal stalemate has been the longest partial government shutdown in the nation’s history. It surpassed the 1995-96 shutdown during President Bill Clinton’s first term that lasted 21 days.

While federal workers reeled from missing paychecks and Native American tribes in Michigan and elsewhere in the nation worried about losing federal assistance, state officials tried to reassure concerned shoppers that they were doing their best to stay on top of the situation.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development did not ramp up food safety inspections, a department spokeswoman previously told the Advance. The state does not inspect produce on sites grown or packed outside of Michigan. But MDARD performs state inspections at grocery stores once the food is already here.

“Ensuring the safety of the state’s food supply is paramount to protecting public health and helping to grow Michigan’s $104.7 billion food and agriculture economy,” said MDARD Director Gary McDowell in a statement.

“Although food safety programs are not at full capacity on the federal level, MDARD food inspectors and food sanitarians from Michigan’s local health departments are on the front lines across Michigan every day to maintain the high-level of confidence in the safety of the state’s food supply.”

During the partial shutdown, the department continued health inspections at grocery stores, while local health departments continued to inspect restaurants, cafeterias, hospitals and other food service operations, according to the department.

In January, state employees conducted 985 inspections at food retailers and 150 at food processing facilities in Michigan, according to MDARD data. They received zero complaints regarding food processors and 60 at retailers this month.

Gary McDowell

In 2018, the department received 1,214 retailer complaints and investigated a total 15,388 such establishments.

“Local health departments, along with MDARD, are the boots on the ground every day to make sure the food served at Michigan restaurants, school lunch rooms and hospitals is safe and wholesome,” Meghan Swain, executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health said in a statement. “We are proud of the role we play as an integral part of Michigan’s food safety assurance system.”

Food inspectors take random samples and test for pathogens such as Listeria, E. coli and Salmonella at a laboratory. If any unsavory food is found, the product is removed.

McDowell had previously called for a swift return of FDA workers to “bring all food safety efforts up to full capacity.”

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.