"Unfortunately, we are unable to answer your call due to government shutdown."
That's the recorded message you'll hear right now if you call the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's division for seafood safety, in the event that you were looking for information about, say, the inspection of thousands of tons of imported foreign shrimp entering the country, shrimp that often poses a risk of contamination from salmonella, decomposition (aka rotting), and other common problems.
With the government shutdown heading into its second week, the agency responsible for the safety of roughly 80% of the national food supply has had to suspend the majority of its inspection activity.
We talked to experts familiar with FDA food safety regulations to understand what this means for American consumers. Here's what you should know:
1. How has the shutdown impacted the FDA?
The FDA has been forced to suspend "the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities." That doesn't include meat and poultry inspections, which are handled separately by the USDA, but the FDA oversees almost everything else, including an enormous volume of imported seafood, produce, and packaged foods.
Forty-five percent of all FDA workers have been furloughed, most of them food safety workers (who, unlike their drug-regulating counterparts, aren't able to continue operating with carryover funds from corporate user fees). Employees have been asked to turn in their government cell phones so that they won't be able to read or respond to any work emails.
2. What happens when food isn't inspected?
A lapse in food inspections is a serious health concern, largely because the federal government's infrastructure for identifying and responding to outbreaks of foodborne illness (specifically, the Center for Disease Control's digital outbreak monitoring system, called PulseNet) isn't fully operational either during a shutdown. That means that serious outbreaks like, say, Hepatitis A infections caused by imported Turkish pomegranate seeds (discovered this summer) could potentially go undetected.
"When an outbreak is occurring, the CDC needs to have people at both the FDA and the USDA to coordinate, and yet today all these agencies are largely operating on skeleton crews," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Even if there were inspectors on duty to identify health threats in the food supply, there wouldn't be teams in place to investigate and control those threats.
Barbara Kowalcyk, CEO of the nonprofit Center for Foodborne Illness, agrees that "the fact that we're not doing food inspections coupled with the fact that we're not looking for national outbreaks means the public is at risk."
3. Which foods are the biggest safety concern if they're not inspected?
"My biggest concern would be imports," says William Hubbard, a former FDA official who retired from the agency in 2005. Most experts agree that, while the thousands of U.S. food production facilities operating without FDA oversight during the shutdown are potentially a problem, the more immediate public health risk comes from foreign food shipments entering the U.S.
The amount of food imported to the U.S. has increased dramatically in recent years, to a current volume of about 12 million shipments per year, but the FDA can only inspect a tiny fraction of those shipments even when it is fully operational. "The increase is just tremendous, and the FDA has not gotten the staff to keep up with that," Hubbard says. "So when the small number they do have aren't even working, that means the imports are just flowing in completely unchecked."
4. So, what kind of gross things might be getting into the country in food shipments?
To get a sense of how often the 1% or 2% of shipments that do get inspected are compromised by dangerous (and disgusting) code violations, you can browse the FDA's online listing of import refusals — international shipments that were turned away based on failure to comply with federal regulations. In the month of September 2013 alone, more than 100 seafood shipments were denied entry.
One rejected shipment of Vietnamese fish was listed under the violation code "FILTHY," and described this way: "The article appears to consist in whole or in part of a filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance or be otherwise unfit for food."
5. Uh, that sounds...bad.
Yes, it's bad. Because, as Hubbard points out, a shutdown means "that long list [of import refusals] goes away. They won't be turned away because they won't be looked at."
Hubbard sees the situation as pretty bleak for consumers, most of whom aren't in the habit of asking questions about where their food comes from and don't realize that they might need to start self-regulating their groceries if the government isn't doing it for them. "They're totally at the mercy of the foreign producers," he says, "because there's nobody checking the goods. States don't have authority to check imported food; the customs people aren't qualified. It's basically the FDA or nobody."
Update - October 8, 10:15 a.m., EDT: Ryan Bennet, an importer who deals with retail products under FDA oversight, emailed to point out that Hubbard's phrasing may not accurately reflect the situation. "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," Bennet says.
6. Is there anything I can do to avoid eating contaminated food?
There are certain foods that pose the most serious risks on the supermarket end of things. CSPI's Caroline Smith DeWaal says that seafood is definitely at the top of list. "About 80% of the seafood we consume is imported, and a lot of it comes from countries in Southeast Asia that may have very limited or even nonexistent regulatory programs," she says.
Imported produce is also potentially an issue, especially as we enter the winter season when Americans buy more fruits and vegetables from foreign rather than domestic producers. DeWaal also mentions leafy greens, tomatoes, and cantaloupe as frequent offenders for contamination. For more info, you can check out CSPI's list of the "Ten Riskiest Foods" regulated by the FDA.
7. How do we solve the problem?
If there's any silver lining here, it may be that sounding an alarm about food inspections during the shutdown could help raise consumers' general awareness about where their food comes from. "This is an education moment, a time for people to think about the safety of their food, where it comes from, and what they can do to reduce their risks," says Erik Olson, director of food programs at Pew Charitable Trusts.
Even when FDA inspections resume in full and when a new law (the long-delayed Food Safety Modernization Act) begins to help fill in the patchwork of national food safety regulation, the health risks of imported food won't go away. The only difference will be that fewer tainted shipments should slip through the cracks. Any shopper's best defense is reading the label and knowing — whether the FDA seafood department picks up the phone or not — that Thai shrimp or Chinese tilapia just aren't the safest ways to get dinner on the table.