Got a case of food poisoning? Thank the tea party.

Among the thousands of effects of the federal government shutdown is the suspension of critical food safety inspections of processing plants and other cogs in the nation’s food distribution system. And just in time to spotlight the need for more inspectors and inspections, not fewer, are reports of a salmonella outbreak from Foster Farms chicken.

The New York Times reports on the effects on the food system from the shutdown, pointing out that the suspension of food inspections follows earlier spending cuts that had already compromised the system.

At the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for inspecting the bulk of food that Americans eat, the agency has gone from a goal of inspecting about 200 plants per week to none and has reduced inspections of imported food. At the Agriculture Department, a meat and poultry hot line that consumers can call for information about food safety or to report problems is closed. At the C.D.C., about 68 percent of staff members were furloughed, including several epidemiologists and dozens of other workers who oversee a database that tracks food-borne illness.

These staff members identify clusters of sickness linked to potentially dangerous strains of bacteria like E. coli and salmonella, and their absences have significantly reduced the center’s ability to respond to an outbreak.

And of course, investors are also flummoxed by the cutbacks, which have suspended routine government agriculture reports. It’s hard to gamble, er, invest in commodities when you have no details of who is growing what where.

The highest-profile report canceled because of the shutdown is World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimates, which supplies statistics on the worldwide production of crops from cotton to corn. It also provides data on other agricultural products, including meat and sugar.

“It leaves the commodities market in a bit of a fog,” said Christopher Narayan, an analyst with the bank Société Générale in New York, who said investors would face difficulties in obtaining accurate information.

The story notes that the Agriculture Department is still conducting inspections of meat plants, mandated ever since Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” grossed out the nation with its revelations of slaughterhouse practices. That is how the salmonella outbreak was traced to a California poultry plant, augmented by the work of the few employees still on the clock at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and elsewhere. But one department’s inspectors aren’t enough to safeguard the food chain, according to Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who warns that the shutdown is endangering the public health:

Right now, these agencies are operating with skeleton crews. This means that some outbreaks will never be investigated and solved while others might be solved days or weeks later than they otherwise would. And each day of delay means that more consumers could be sickened from the undiscovered contaminated food.

In the best of times, these investigations are complex and hard to solve. But it is truly reckless to continue this government shutdown, and leave consumers and the food industry unprotected. It is time for these public servants to get back to work.

Bon appetit


—Posted by Scott Martelle.

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