Supporters of big government are taking advantage of a Salmonella outbreak linked to raw chicken to condemn Republican lawmakers and scare consumers about the government shutdown. But, despite the outcries from the media, Americans shouldn’t be overly concerned with the shutdown’s effect on food safety. In fact, the shutdown notwithstanding, our food is as well monitored as ever.
How could that be, you might ask? Isn’t this Salmonella outbreak proof that the shutdown has caused things to slip through the cracks? Well, actually, no.
Meat and poultry slaughterhouses are inspected by USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, a division essentially unaffected by the shutdown. Federal law requires slaughterhouses to have an inspector on-site at all times in order to conduct business, so those inspectors were on the job and functioning normally when the tainted chicken made it to market. So, the underlying cause of the Salmonella outbreak has nothing to do with the shutdown, it has everything to do with the long-ago outdated way the FSIS performs its job.
FSIS inspectors mainly rely on a “poke and sniff” test to inspect facilities and products. Although testing for the presence of bacteria and other contaminants is done, it is generally performed by slaughterhouse employees and inspectors look at the result. The primary job of an inspector is to conduct a visual inspection of every single animal carcass and guess as to how clean it is. But, while some impurities can be seen, bacteria and viruses cannot. So, visual inspections can lead to misperceptions about how sanitary a facility really is. That’s why this outbreak could occur even with FSIS on the job.
But what about the FDA? That agency’s inspectors have been affected by the shutdown. True. But while USDA inspectors have to be present any time a slaughterhouse is in operation, the FDA has a much less stringent standard for physically inspecting food facilities than most people are aware of.
The minimum amount of visitations by the FDA is currently only once every five years, or once every three years for high-risk food facilities. And, while FDA inspectors also conduct visual inspections during their very rare visits to food production facilities, the FDA relies almost exclusively on microbial testing and HACCP reports that food facilities are required to complete themselves. But, more to the point, because even the most high risk food production facilities are inspected only every six to 12 months, a shutdown of a few weeks can hardly be expected to impact food safety in any meaningful way. We rely far more for food safety on the fact that food producers have ample incentives not to make their customers ill than we do on government inspections.
A recent Buzzfeed article quoted FDA staffer Ryan Bennet, who works with imported retail products, as stating the following:
Under normal circumstances, about 1% of the food that enters the U.S. is physically inspected so yes, it’s true that the vast majority of food products are coming in without inspection — but that would be happening with or without a government shutdown.
Even the FDA is admitting that its frequency of inspections is rather low. It is time to relax the rhetoric about this “shutdown” and take a good hard look at the actual expenses and procedures performed by our government. Only then can we make rational choices about what should be cut or reformed within the federal budget.