'Call and write the president': The government shutdown could mean more food-poisoning outbreaks

fda inspector eggsA United States Department of Agriculture inspector checks eggs at Maine Contract Farming, Thursday, July 1, 2010, in Turner, Maine. New England's largest egg farm is taking steps to show it has improved care of its hens after reaching a settlement over allegations its birds were mistreatedAP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

  • The government shutdown is now in day 18.
  • As part of the shutdown, may of the Food and Drug Administration's food inspection duties are not being conducted.
  • The US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service is still operational, but employees are not getting paid.
  • According to Bill Marler, an attorney specializing in food-poisoning outbreaks, these changes could lead to problems and possibly more food poisoning outbreaks.

The government shutdown could lead to an unlikely negative consequence: more food-poisoning outbreaks.

With the fight over President Donald Trump's demands for a wall along the US-Mexico border dragging on into day 18, some food-safety functions of the US government are going untended. According to one expert, the shutdown's effects should make Americans concerned about food-poisoning outbreaks.

There are two major agencies that oversee food-safety inspections in the US: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a division of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The FSIS oversees inspections of meat, poultry, and eggs while the FDA looks after the rest - everything from cheese to lettuce to bread.

According to the USDA's shutdown plan, FSIS employees are deemed "essential," and inspections conducted by the agency will continue. But employees doing those inspections are not paid.

By contrast, the FDA's plan determined that while limited inspections will continue during the shutdown - such as inspections of imported foods - a majority of food operations are shut down.

Read more: The effects of the shutdown are only going to get exponentially worse as the fight drags on

"FDA would be unable to support some routine regulatory and compliance activities," the FDA plan said. "This includes some medical product, animal drug, and most food related activities. FDA will also pause routine establishment inspections, cosmetics and nutrition work, and many ongoing research activities."

In addition, the FDA deemed that employees responsible for responding to outbreaks of foodborne illness are essential. But those measures are for response, rather than the inspections that could prevent a future outbreak.

"I'd say you should be very worried about your food safety, in part because the work that's not being done right now is the work that's needed to prevent the next outbreak of foodborne illness," Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the consumer watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Public Radio International.

According to the FDA's plan, 41% of all employees are on furlough, meaning the workers are not receiving pay and are barred from coming to work.

But even those FSIS and FDA employees that are still on the job are facing potential financial woes due to the lack of pay. Already employees in other agencies, such as the TSA, are starting to call in sick, and problems in those departments are adding up.

Bill Marler, an attorney specializing in food-poisoning outbreaks who has won more than $600 million for clients in foodborne-illness cases, pointed out that the real possibility of not receiving a paycheck on January 15 is also likely affecting the inspectors who do remain on the job.

"Seriously, can we expect, as the shutdown stumbles into week two, that inspectors' focus are solely on preventing the next E. coli, Salmonella or Listeria outbreak?" Marler wrote in a blog post.

When asked by Business Insider what people could do to avoid another food-poisoning outbreak, Marler had just one suggestion.

"Call and write the president," Marler said in an email on Tuesday.

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