By Julie Steenhuysen
CHICAGO (Reuters) – The partial government shutdown is taking a toll on key safety inspection duties performed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture, food safety experts said on Wednesday.
Workers in public health laboratories are reporting disruptions in the analysis of DNA from food samples involved in foodborne outbreaks, and have raised concerns about a USDA program that tests agricultural commodities for unsafe levels of pesticides, they said.
The shutdown is “putting our nation’s food supply at risk,” Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat, said at a briefing of the House Congressional Food Safety Caucus on Wednesday. Only about a third of the FDA’s regular inspections are being carried out, she said.
The FDA has furloughed 41 percent of its workforce of more than 17,000 employees, Thomas Gremillion of the Consumer Federation of America told the briefing. About 90 percent of the USDA’s 9,500 Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) employees remain on the job but are working without pay, he said.
FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said on Twitter on Tuesday that he is bringing back 150 food inspectors.
Foodborne disease outbreaks are investigated jointly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA and FSIS, which trace the source of outbreaks back to food producers.
The CDC is fully funded and continuing to investigate foodborne disease outbreaks, but “joint efforts to investigate, coordinate and communicate about such outbreaks may be delayed” as a result of the shutdown, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said.
He said that trace back and assessment of food production facilities and ongoing lab testing depend on the resources of its partner agencies, which are reduced during a shutdown.
Peter Kyriacopoulos, senior director of public policy at the Association of Public Health Laboratories, which represents state and local public health laboratories, said member labs are reporting delays in the analysis of DNA sequences of pathogens taken from sick patients that could be matched with food products, an important part of the trace back process.
APHL members have also reported disruptions in the USDA’s AMS Pesticide Data Program, which does sampling, testing and reporting of pesticide residues in agricultural commodities in the U.S. food supply that could cause problems for children.
He learned on Wednesday that one of the 10 public health laboratories that tests commodities plans to continue to test samples during the shutdown without compensation, Kyriacopoulos told Reuters. He declined to name the lab.
(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)