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Daily News Blog

23
Oct

Don’t Get Comfortable: Government Shutdown Exacerbates Food Safety Threats

Warning sign with text saying "Government Shutdown."

(Beyond Pesticides, October 23, 2023) As the immediate threat of a government shutdown has temporarily subsided, concerns are mounting over the potential threats to food safety in the United States if the government shuts down in mid-November. Experts are warning that a shutdown could jeopardize critical food safety inspections and oversight. A partial government shutdown in 2019 disrupted federal oversight of food monitoring for various pathogens and pesticides, as labs were shuttered, with agency employees furloughed. See Beyond Pesticide’s reporting about food safety risks during the last government shutdown. However, it should be noted that residues of pesticides in food continue to raise concerns about safety of food grown in chemical-intensive (conventional) farming operations.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) contingency plans dictate that the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) continue its regulatory inspection of meat, poultry, and egg products, as mandated by law. However, it is important to note that the FSIS will operate with a reduced workforce, with a portion of employees deemed “essential personnel” for food safety operations.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which includes the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is also preparing for a potential shutdown. According to HHS’s contingency plans, the agency expects to furlough about 42% of its workforce, or approximately 35,000 staff, with exemptions given to those involved in activities already funded or deemed necessary for the safety of human life or protection of property.

Despite these measures, experts are expressing concerns about the potential impact on food safety. FDA, responsible for regulating approximately 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, may be hindered in its ability to conduct proactive inspections and respond effectively to foodborne illness outbreaks.

Former FDA Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas has cautioned that government shutdowns can pose significant risks to food safety. During the 2018-19 shutdown, essential government services allowed the FDA to address foodborne outbreaks, but it hampered the agency’s ability to carry out essential proactive inspections. Mr. Yiannas elaborated on how shutdowns impact the agency’s operations. He noted that during that time, the classification of “essential government services” enabled the FDA to respond to foodborne outbreaks but prohibited the agency from conducting proactive inspections. Mr. Yiannas said during an interview with Politico, “While we worked hard to try to expand the definition of ‘essential services’ last time to include the inspection of high-risk food facilities, the reality is another shutdown would be extremely disruptive and it would result in a ripple throughout the food system ranging from inspections, food testing, interactions with other regulators, and the necessary interactions and consultation with the food industry at large.”

As the funding deadline approaches, the fate of U.S. food safety remains uncertain, with stakeholders and experts closely monitoring developments in Congress and their potential impact on the nation’s food supply chain. 

The Farm Bill is one major point of contention and stalled negotiations say lead to a shutdown. Many conservatives are saying, “we need to put farms back into the Farm Bill.” However, this shortened “Farm Bill” name leaves out the “food security” history in the bill. The American Farm Bureau is starting to make this rebranding change, by calling it the (Food and) Farm Bill. In 2018, the Farm Bill was called the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. Originally, as part of the New Deal in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Agricultural Adjustment Act and it was later called the Soil Conservation Act (1935), the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act (1936), and the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act (1973). Importantly, in 1985, the name was changed to The Food Security Act, which incentivized wetland preservation and prevention of soil erosion. Despite the various names of the Omnibus bill, it was never just a “farm bill,” and over the past several decades, food stamps and SNAP benefits have been integral to the food security of the US and its “Farm Bill.”

However, that is not the end of the story. Under the best of circumstances, the safety of the food supply is under threat of contamination from chemical-intensive practices. 

The complete Pesticide Data Program (PDP) database for 2020 yielded the following results: (Background on the program is available at http://www.ams.usda.gov/pdp.)

  • more than 99% of tested samples tested had pesticide residues below the established EPA tolerances; 30% had no detectable residue
  • .49% (47 samples) showed residues exceeding established tolerances; of these, 74.5% (35) were domestic, 23.4% (11) were imported, and 2.1% (1) was of unknown origin
  • residues with no established tolerance were found in 3.2% (303) of the 9,600 samples; of these, 65.7% (199) were domestic, 33% (100) were imported, and 1.3% (4) were of unknown origin

Organic produce was included in the PDP sampling. In 2020, 7.4% (706) of the tested samples were organic; nearly all organic samples were “zero detects,” but very small numbers of organic items sampled had detectable residues. This contamination can happen in a number of ways, including pesticide drift from conventional to organic fields, migration through soil or water, or infrequently, misrepresentation of treated produce as “organic.” (See more.)

FDA reported in August, 2022 that over half of all food samples tested by the FDA contain the residues of at least one pesticide, and one in ten samples have levels that violate legal limits established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These findings, published by FDA this month in its 2020 Pesticide Residue Monitoring Report, are simply par for the course for government regulators, as FDA indicates the 2020 results “were consistent with recent years.”

Out of 2,078 samples tested, 316 were domestic and 1,762 were from imported food. Of the 316 domestic food samples, 59.2% contained the residue of at least one pesticide, and 3.2% were in violation of EPA pesticide tolerances. Import samples totaled 1,762, of which over 50% contained at least one pesticide residue, and 11.6% were in violation. In general, samples of food imported to the U.S. from other countries appeared to pose a greater risk of containing pesticide residue. Countries documenting the highest number of import violations included Mexico, India, and Pakistan. Among the over 2,000 samples tested, 185 different pesticide residues were detected. (See more.) According to internal FDA communications, granola, cereal, and wheat crackers all contain “a fair amount” of glyphosate, the herbicide in Monsanto’s popular Roundup, linked to cancer by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). FDA did not test for glyphosate at the time that The Guardian uncovered the information. FDA’s website states, “Of the 879 corn, soybean, milk, and egg assignment samples tested for glyphosate and glufosinate, approximately 59% of the corn and soy samples tested positive for residues of glyphosate and/or glufosinate, but all were below the tolerance levels set by the U.S. EPA.” With the history of controversy on glyphosate and EPA’s failure to limit its uses, advocates have called into question the allowable level in food and through nondietary exposure. (Background articles on glyphosate hazards are from here.)

However, while reporting on the dangerous pesticides present in U.S. food has become routine for FDA, more and more Americans are rejecting regular exposure to unnecessary toxics in their food by going organic with their food choices, planting their own pesticide-free gardens, and encouraging their elected officials to embrace safer, sustainable land care policies.  

If you are concerned about the kinds of pesticides could be in your food, how conventional food is grown, and its adverse impact on the ecosystem and farmworkers, you can utilize Beyond Pesticides’ Eating with a Conscience database. The organization evaluates the impact of toxic chemicals allowed for use on individual fruits and vegetables grown domestically and internationally.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Food stamps, free lunch, airplane inspections: What’s hit when the government shuts down

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