National Consumers League

A real-life example of how a government shutdown hurts food safety

kelsey By Kelsey Albright, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow Early last week the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) put out a public health alert warning American consumers that Foster Farms chicken from three of the four processing plants it had been investigating since July could be unsafe to consume.  What is a public health alert, you may be asking, and why not issue a recall if the USDA knows where this salmonella-ridden chicken is coming from?

The government shutdown was a disconcerting affair for food safety advocates like myself. FSIS, a subdivision of the USDA, maintains that their choice to issue a public health alert instead of a recall had nothing to do with the shutdown.  I think otherwise.  Although food inspectors in plants were not furloughed, many other workers that are necessary to keep processes speedy (such as workers who monitor food borne illness outbreaks at the CDC, laboratory technicians that analyze their findings, and other employees that assist with food monitoring) were sent home to twiddle their thumbs while Congress duked out their budget battle.

A fully staffed USDA and CDC are more effective in detecting food borne illness and acting to prevent it than agencies that are “mostly open”. The lack of manpower behind these operations may have led to the issuance of a public health alert instead of a recall.  Finding the origin of an outbreak and proving that a person got sick from a specific product purchased from a specific store that came from a specific plant is a difficult endeavor. 

USDA cannot issue a recall if these strict, time intensive processes are not conducted. Instead of going through this lengthy process, FSIS used what information they had gathered and issued a public health alert notifying consumers to cook their chicken to 165⁰F to kill any Salmonella Heidelberg present.  In doing so they also allowed Foster Farms 72 hours to clean up their act or be shut down When 317 people from 20 states have been confirmed ill with an abnormally high hospitalization rate of 42%, is a public health alert alone enough to protect the public?  Stores like Krogers and Costco have taken matters into their own hands by issuing a recall of products they sold and paying out of pocket for a mistake that was not of their making.   Unsurprisingly, Foster Farms did clean up their act and were not shut down, but it doesn’t change the fact that Salmonella Heidelberg contaminated chicken is still on the shelves of many grocery stores.  Foster Farms has yet to own up to their egregious mistake by recalling their chicken and the USDA isn’t holding them to it either.