January 11, 2019
By Zlati Meyer
Days after President Donald Trump’s televised address about why he wants $5.7 billion to build a security wall along the U.S.’s southern border, the federal government shutdown continues.
It is affecting everything from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and airport security to the National Weather Service and business owners who want Small Business Administration loans.
While some of those things you can temporarily do without—think trips to national parks—food is vital to life.
Here’s a look at how what’s going on in Washington could impact your dinner.
The potential for unsafe food and a resulting public health problem depends on what kind of food it is and which part of the federal government is responsible for inspecting and monitoring it.
In its contingency staffing plan for operations, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the Food and Drug Administration, said it’d be “unable to support some routine regulatory and compliance activities,” which includes “most food-related activities.”
The FDA’s website says work it deems “mission critical, public health activities”—like watching out for and responding to foodborne illness outbreaks, supporting high-risk food recalls and screening food imports—continue. Five recalls have been posted there since the shutdown began on Dec. 22.
“Less inspections mean people who are being unsafe may not have anyone who notices,” said Brian Kellerman, a Columbus, Ohio-based food-safety consultant. “That means more unsafe food makes it to the food supply.”
At the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat, poultry and processed egg products, inspections are still going on during the shutdown because they’re considered essential.
USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service personnel who handle these are critical “to the functioning of food safety operations in the nation’s food supply, who would continue to perform services essential to public health.”
Kellerman said meat, poultry and processed egg inspections could slow down as a result, though. And the USDA might have to rely more on the states’ agriculture departments for help.
The ripples from the government shutdown won’t be coming to your supermarket aisles anytime soon, but they could later.
Some farmers use the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service data to make planting decisions. Wrong choices could hurt the offending planters and if it’s a big enough problem, lead to higher prices.
No new stats are coming their way now: “Due to a lapse in federal funding, this USDA website will not be actively updated. Once funding has been reestablished, online operations will continue.”
“The data is uniformly shut off from all different agencies during shutdowns; it’s nonessential,” said Scott Baker, an associate professor of finance at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who studied the 2013 federal government shutdown.
“Data is one of the things that’s more impacted. It’s not visual to the average household. If you rely on government data for the research or operation of your business, you’ll be feeling that pretty quickly.”
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is out during the shutdown. That means the federal government will not approve beer labels or process permits, which translates into no new beers.
“During the shutdown period, but submissions will not be reviewed or approved until appropriations are enacted,” the bureau’s website said.
A start-up brewery needs a permit to manufacture beer in the U.S., according to the Brewers Association, the Boulder, Colorado-based trade association, which estimates the government handles as many 400 new permits a quarter, so every month means 100-plus breweries are in a holding pattern. Plus, when the government is funded again, brewers could face a backlog to get their new products out.
However, people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—abbreviated to SNAP and known colloquially as food stamps—will continue to get their benefits, at least through February.
When the USDA’s funding expired on Dec. 21, SNAP benefits for January were fully funded, so that month was safe, according to the department, which is working with states to issue February benefits early.
“Our motto here at USDA has been to ‘Do Right and Feed Everyone,’” USDA secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement on Tuesday. “With this solution, we’ve got the ‘Feed Everyone’ part handled. And I believe that the plan we’ve constructed takes care of the ‘Do Right’ part as well.”
Child nutrition programs, like school meals and after-school programs, have funding available to last through March, the USDA said.
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