Government shutdown affecting food inspection

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Diners worry that 41 percent of the Food and Drug Administration’s food inspectors have been furloughed due to the ongoing partial government shutdown. That means the FDA’s actually inspecting only about one-third of the 160 facilities it normally checks every week until Congress and President Donald Trump can finally agree on how to fund border security.

“I think it’s crazy that simple things, like they can’t even regulate the food, so who knows what we’re eating,” said Totowa resident Nicole Tremble.

“Now we can’t eat safely. It’s like our basic rights are being taken away because he can’t make up his mind, or he can’t just compromise, really,” said Kateland Puluse.

And the threat is real. Every year, one in six Americans get a foodborne illness. In November, supermarkets cleared romaine lettuce off the shelves after E. coli sickened 62 people in 16 states, including New Jersey.

“Whether it’s listeria with ice cream, salmonella in cereal, and of course, E. coli in romaine lettuce, we understand this plays havoc with our health,” Said Dr. Suraj Saggar, infectious disease chief at Holy Name Medical Center.

But the FDA narrowed its mission to cope with the shutdown.

“So right now, FDA is focusing on following up on emergencies, responding to recalls and outbreaks and also looking at high-risk facilities. In general, high-risk foods that FDA is focusing on include cheeses, include produce, they include seafood, generally the kind of foods a consumer might think to put in their refrigerator because they’re perishable,” said Sarah Sorscher, Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In a news conference at Holy Name Medical Center, Rep. Josh Gottheimer said he’s asked county and state health officials to step up and help inspect food facilities in New Jersey. But he acknowledges the real problem requires a political compromise. So what are Democrats willing to give?

“Here we are, once again, playing Russian roulette with people’s health and safety because we can’t figure out how to open the government,” Gottheimer said. “We’ve been rebuffed time and again, right now from the Senate and, frankly, right now from the administration. And I’m hoping they sing a different tune because we can’t afford to put our skies at risk, we can’t afford to put our food safety at risk, we can’t afford to hurt our small businesses and jobs.”

Gottheimer wants government reopened as negotiations continue. The president has refused, even though recent polls show more Americans blame Trump for the shutdown than Democrats.

“The Democrats have to do something. We need their votes otherwise we can’t solve it. Without their votes, they now control the House, let’s see if they can lead. I don’t know that they can lead, but we’re going to soon find out,” Trump said.

County and state health officials say they’re looking into possible food inspections. Neither side seems to be any closer in ending the government shutdown.