Late last week, a group of Democratic U.S. Senators penned a letter to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb about their concerns regarding how the partial government shutdown—currently in its 24th day—and lack of funding will affect Americans’ public health.

The effort was led by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Ranking Member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP). The Committee is specifically asking “what FDA is doing to protect families across the country and ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply as its operations are hampered by the ongoing government shutdown.” The letter also asks for additional details on how FDA was reducing oversight of food facilities.

The 6-page document—about half of which is comprised of 34 signatures—mentions last year’s seemingly never-ending occurrence of multistate foodborne outbreaks, particularly the Escherichia coli O157:H7 ones linked to romaine lettuce. If such outbreaks occurred while FDA was fully operational, what kind of risk does that pose when routine food processing inspections are not being conducted?

Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

“...during the shutdown, FDA’s inspectorate is unable to conduct any activities deemed non-critical, resulting in diminished oversight of many foreign and domestic food facilities. As the shutdown enters its fourth week, we are concerned that the agency will soon be unable to determine which food facilities pose an “imminent threat to health and life.”[4] Though FDA is able to use appropriated funds to support high-risk food recalls when products endanger consumers and patients, and respond to any outbreaks related to foodborne illness during the shutdown, we are concerned about the agency’s ability to detect and address otherwise preventable food safety issues before they occur. FDA field staff have voiced fears about immediate threats to health and safety as a result of the shutdown, including a consumer safety officer in FDA’s Stoneham, Massachusetts, office:  "When you go out to a restaurant or a grocery store, the American public trusts it. There is a higher risk of injury or death in a potentially very, very serious way."[5]”

The letter concludes with,

“We recognize FDA’s efforts to mitigate the impact of this government shutdown on the public health and its employees. However, we remain alarmed that the continued shutdown will result in increasingly harmful effects on the agency’s employees and the safety and security of the nation’s food and medical products.”    

See the letter in its entirety, and read a press release from the Senate HELP Committee.

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