Some Salmonella With Your Shutdown?

Food safety is one of the important functions of government crippled by the shutdown.

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A sign marks the entrance to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, in Atlanta. The government shutdown has slowed or halted federal efforts to protect Americans' health and safety, from probes into the cause of transportation and workplace accidents to tracking the flu. The latest example: investigating an outbreak of salmonella in chicken that has sickened people in 18 states. The CDC has recalled some of its furloughed staff to deal with the salmonella outbreak, which has sickened more than 270 people and was announced by the Agriculture Department late Monday.

It's worth remembering, as Republicans desperately search for a way out of the tea-party-inspired shutdown that they initiated, that shuttering the government affects a lot more than panda cams, national parks and the Smithsonian. (And this poor kid who just wants to go to the zoo.) As I noted yesterday, a computer network that helps track food-borne illnesses was closed down during a salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds of people in 18 states. And that's not even the full extent of the problem when it comes to the shutdown and your food, as the New York Times outlined today:

Offices are dark across the federal agencies charged with making sure that the fruit, vegetables, dairy products and a vast array of other domestically produced food are safe to consume. Inspectors, administrative staff, lab technicians, communications specialists and other support staff members have been sent home while lawmakers wrangle over government spending.

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.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the government shutdown.]

This problem has been made more acute by the shutdown, but it's not like the U.S. was doing such a bang-up job of food safety even when the government was operating at full capacity. Only about 2 percent of the food coming into the U.S. is inspected, but even then some very nasty stuff is found. (A random perusal of just this month's rejected seafood imports brought up a host of items turned away due to salmonella or marked with the rejection code " FILTHY.") Even as U.S. food imports have risen in recent years, inspections have fallen. A lot of domestic food, meanwhile, never gets inspected at all.

The upshot of such a lax regime is that, each year, 3,000 people die from food-borne illness, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Georgetown University's Produce Safety Project puts the cost of food-borne illness to the U.S. economy at  $152 billion each year.

In 2010, Congress did pass the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was meant to address some of the system's current shortcomings and which President Obama signed in early 2011. But House Republicans have refused to fund the law's implementation, slowing it down considerably; that problem has only been made worse by the shutdown and the so-called sequester, the across-the-board spending cuts that resulted from the last time the GOP took the debt ceiling hostage.

Food safety is one of those government functions that, if it's working properly, no one notices, but when it goes wrong, has the capacity to cause a gigantic mess. How many more Americans will wind up sick from salmonella before the government is able to reopen its doors? And even after the government is up and running again, will food inspectors ever actually get the support they need to do their jobs? Hopefully it doesn't take a massive outbreak of some nasty illness to make lawmakers pay attention.