8 Food Risks Going Unmonitored During the Shutdown

Among the ostensibly “non-essential” services on hold during the government shutdown is the Food and Drug Administration’s food inspection program. Within the country, as theHuffington Post points out, that means as many as 80 food production facilities each day may be going uninspected (although an FDA spokesman clarified that an unclear portion of those will be carried out by state agriculture and public health departments).

Food coming from outside the U.S. is also going unmonitored. As Food Safety News first reported, meat inspectors at the USDA are still on duty, but food-safety workers at the FDA are not allowed to use their cellphones, check their emails or, most important, inspect imported food.  Normally, according to Quartz, the FDA blocks imports from tens of thousands of facilities with records of violations.

Although the agency says it will continue to act on “high-risk recalls,” Caroline Smith DeWaal, the food safety director for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, doubts that will be enough. “They’re underfunded in that area generally, but no imports are being inspected for safety right now,” DeWaal told the Christian Science Monitor. “People could certainly target the US for products that night [sic] not be accepted elsewhere.”

Quartz calls out shrimp as a particularly dangerous import, but estimates that 90 percent of the foreign seafood, half of the fruit and one-fifth of the vegetables consumed by Americans is currently entering the country unchecked. Below, some foods on “red alert” that, were the government operating as intended, the furloughed inspectors would be watching out for:

1. Lead in candy: The FDA has had imported candy on red alert since 1994, when a contaminated treat entered the country via Mexico. While lead in packaging hasn't occurred recently, they still see cases of lead coming from unwashed chili peppers used as an ingredient.

2. Unapproved drugs in seafood: A number of international aquaculture operations on are alert for using unapproved drugs in that could make seafoodunsafe for consumers.

3. Mad cow disease risk in supplements: The USDA's prohibition on imports of meat from countries with a history of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease, doesn't apply to dietary supplements, prompting the FDA to closely monitor shipments for the disease which, as it notes, is "extremely resistant to activation by normal disinfection or sterilization procedure."

4. Cocaine in tea:  The FDA's been on alert ever since 1986, when the DEA cracked down on herbal tea made from "decocainized coca leaves" sent to Hawaii, Georgia, Chicago and various East Coast locations.

5. Melamine in milk: Milk products from China have been flagged since the 2008infant formula scandal, in which thousands of babies were sickened, and several died, after consuming contaminated formula. The problem of melamine, according to the FDA, is a recurring one -- inspection officials are also on the lookout for anything containing milk as an ingredient, including yogurt, frozen desserts, biscuits, cakes and cookies, taffy-like soft candy products, chocolates and beverages.

6. Metals in fruit juice: Heavy lead and arsenic contamination has been found infruit juice concentrates from Argentina and China. A single 8 ounce serving of grape juice found in a shipment from 2002 contained three times the amount of lead judged to be tolerable for children.

7. Bacteria in cheese: A laundry list of contaminants, from salmonella to E. coli, have been found in imported cheese from around the world. The FDA also looks out for the use of nitrates in cheese and other dairy products.

8. Pathogens in produce: Because fresh produce is likely to be consumed raw and follows complex distribution patterns, disease outbreaks from contaminated imports is likely to be widespread and difficult to contain. As such, fruits and vegetables from a number of countries are on red alert.

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