As I write this, the government had reopened after the longest shutdown in U.S. history — but there also was the possibility that it could, again, shut down in mid-February if negotiations were to fail. Either way, government workers are likely to be still digging out from under piles of “non-essential” work that was not able to be done — by law. As such, I would not be surprised if we were to find that the greatest food safety impacts were due to the very definition of “non-essential” for the agencies that oversee the health and safety of our foods.
For FDA, for example, routine facility food safety inspections (and the personnel who conduct them) are considered non-essential. Although FDA began conducting some high-risk inspections in mid-January, the prioritization of “high-risk” foods undoubtedly underwent much delicate deliberation — with the decision makers likely crossing their fingers that the right foods were prioritized as impacts could continue long afterward. USDA inspections were able to continue, but if the shutdown were to have continued (or relapse), more USDA employees would be furloughed and activities reduced as available funding decreased. And, although state public health investigators could continue to detect outbreaks, CDC could not conduct cross-state collaboration and lab work for linking outbreaks.
Not only does each have a food safety impact, but the combination of the three could have far-reaching repercussions, particularly with the shutdown following so closely on the heels of the romaine lettuce recalls — the largest E. coli O157:H7 outbreak the country has seen in the last decade. While uncertainties remained in the investigation (such as how canal water contaminated the lettuce and when and how the water itself became contaminated) and an FDA testing program and traceability project were halted, the next Yuma-region romaine growing season was well underway.
So what did we learn (so far) about food safety during government shutdowns? Even though FDA was unable to conduct routine inspections, food businesses did not seem to take a “mom’s-not-looking” approach to food safety, as they continued to voluntarily recall foods. However, the inability of CDC to link pathogenic contamination across states could significantly reduce traceability efforts and increase outbreak ramifications. We also saw that, with most communication personnel being deemed non-essential, many FDA officials took to Twitter to keep consumers, the industry, and furloughed employees informed. This was particularly true of FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, from whose tweets a good picture of FDA work could be seen.
The timing of the shutdown also threw FDA’s new Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas right into the fray, putting on hold his ability to initiate or work on non-“imminent threat” projects or programs for which he was hired. However, his tweets (@FrankYiannasFDA) provided a glimpse of areas in which we likely can expect to see his focus: preventive action (“At the heart of FSMA is the idea that the nation’s food safety system must be transformed into one that’s based on #prevention.”); technology (“A new era of a more digital, traceable, & transparent food system is dawning”); and — unsurprisingly, given his involvement in the Walmart blockchain program — traceability (“Interesting article on predicted food trends for 2019. Tech-enabled food traceability & transparency high on the list. #traceability #technology #blockchain”).
You also can expect to discover more about Yiannas’ plans for his FDA commission in the March/April issue of QA, in which we will feature a one-on-one with Yiannas — postponed once due to the shutdown, but perhaps, all the more interesting due to that unorthodox start.