January 25, 2019
With the Food and Drug Administration largely out of action for the past month as a result of the partial government shutdown, consumers have been warned that many inspectors are not on the job and they should be careful about the groceries they buy. But questions remain: How careful and what groceries?
The answers are complicated, and it depends on whom you ask, CNN said in a recent report.
“We are very concerned that the shutdown may lead to lapses in food safety, but we don’t know where or when these will happen,” Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of Regulatory Affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, told the cable news network.
When asked what foods he won’t eat during the shutdown, food safety attorney Bill Marler said, “I would say anything you aren’t controlling yourself—so any fresh, uncooked products,” such as ready-to-eat salads and prepackaged sandwiches, or meals that aren’t cooked.
Specifically, he points to, “Sprouts, leafy greens, ready to eat products like cheese, ice cream. I would be especially suspect if you’re a pregnant woman, children, people with a compromised immune system. I would stay away from it completely.”
“I worry about those foods that are going to institutions—like hospitals, like nursing homes … I worry about our most vulnerable consumers,” Catherine Donnelly, a professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont told CNN.
However, she said her confidence in the safety of the US food supply is still high, even during the shutdown. The FDA is only one part of the safety system, she said.
“The FDA made it really clear that the responsibility for food safety lies with the companies,” she noted. “They just have responsibility for oversight and determining whether there are violations. To a large extent, the job of food safety is already being done very well I think by the food industry at large.
“Consumers should continue to have confidence in those brand names that they trust and the willingness of companies to do the right thing in providing them with safe food.”
Hilary Thesmar, chief food and product safety officer at the Food Marketing Institute, an advocacy organization for food retailers, told the news outlet that supply chain control requirements from grocers help keep the food system safe.
Grocers “have a lot of customer specifications and customer requirements on products that they buy,” she said.
But other consumer groups share Marler’s concern about the safety of the food supply during the shutdown, even with some furloughed inspectors going back to work (without pay).
“Our advice is for people to continue using common sense measures — that they should rinse off their vegetables, rinse off their fruits, cook their meat, don’t eat raw meats, and just do all the normal things that you should do all the time anyway and you should be just fine,” Alex Berezow, vice president of Scientific Affairs of the American Council on Science and Health, a pro-science consumer advocacy organization, said in an email. He added that there really isn’t any particular food that should be avoided and said, “If you have any doubts about food, throw it out.”
Finally, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, told CNN that the FDA is taking steps to “expand the scope of food safety surveillance inspections we’re doing during the shutdown to make sure we continue inspecting high risk food facilities.” He noted that “31% of our inventory of domestic inspections are considered high-risk”; those are the inspections the agency is now trying to resume.
This applies to routine domestic surveillance inspections of foods including seafood, bakery products filled with custard, soft and semi-soft ripened cheese and cheese products, unpasteurized juices, fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, sandwiches and infant formula, among other food items.
Research contact: @debgcnn