Foodborne illness kills 3,000 Americans each year and hospitalizes another 130,000. One in six Americans get sick from food poisoning each year. In 2011 it cost the U.S. economy at least $7.7 billion, according to the CDC. And that was with a functioning Food and Drug Administration.
Now comes this: the federal government shutdown has deemed most of the FDA, which handles about 80% of food inspections, as “non-essential.”
“That means there are about 500 food facilities a week that are not being inspected by the FDA and those are all potential threats to the U.S. food supply,” says Alan Bjerga, an agricultural policy reporter for Bloomberg News.
Meat product inspection will remain funded and running, but fruit and vegetable inspection will fall by the wayside. The FDA had 37 recalls of fruit and vegetables in 2011, up from two in 2005.
The FDA has already been dealing with budgetary pressures with an annual budget of $1 billion to inspect food sales -- totaling $1.2 trillion each year. “Still, when these inspectors come by, they catch things…if you don’t know what’s out there you don’t necessarily know what’s safe,” says Bjerga.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the governmental organization that checks for airborne disease, has also been slashed to just one staff member at regional offices. “They’re monitoring clusters of potential food outbreaks -- the things that really get attention in the news, that’s the stuff that could have the biggest potential risk for our food supply,” explains Bjerga.
By law the FDA must inspect 35,000 plants a year but last year they only looked at 20,000. “Shutdown or not, people are really looking at the state of food safety in the U.S. and whether it needs more funding,” says Bjerga.
CDC director Tom Frieden is very worried about the impact of the shutdown. In a CBS interview, he told reporter Mark Strassmann, "I usually don't lose sleep despite the threats that we face, but I am losing sleep because we don't know if we'll be able to find and stop things that might kill people."
So is there more risk to the country’s food supply today than there was before the shutdown? “The answer is yes,” concludes Bjerga.
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