Although it appears members of Congress are coming together to reach a deal that would reopen the federal government and send public workers back to their jobs, the nation’s food supply and those who monitor it have suffered setbacks from the closure. Many Food and Drug Administration food safety inspections have been suspended as all agency employees deemed non-essential were on furlough during the federal government shutdown. Employees at The Centers for Disease Control, the agency responsible for tracking public health crises, have not been working either while the department remained largely shuttered.


Not even the White House has been safe from the effects of the shutdown. Left untended and unweeded due to lack of gardening staff, Mrs. Obama’s White House kitchen garden has quickly become a feasting ground for opportunistic Washington, D.C. squirrels. 


While an overgrown garden and uninspected food plants represent the results of two very different ends of the shutdown spectrum, both highlight the amount of work that goes into maintaining a safe food supply every day, whether on a personal level or on the national scale.


Yearly the FDA visits about twenty thousand food production plants, making roughly four hundred inspections weekly. Inspectors monitor everything from foreign imports to fresh vegetables to packaged foods and their processing plants. During the federal government shutdown, it was estimated that only half of these inspections were being carried out each week, with individual states assuming much of the responsibility for food safety within their borders. For the consumer, this meant that food safety standards varied state by state, and some may not have been as rigorous or as comprehensive as the federal government’s food safety guidelines. With the partial closure of the CDC thrown into the mix, a major food borne illness such as listeria, salmonella, or Hepatitis A would have challenged efforts to control outbreaks by releasing public safety information, monitor affected areas, and target culprits.


And yet, even when these agencies are fully staffed, outbreaks occur. If the federal government shutdown might serve any purpose other than annoyance, perhaps it is to highlight the steps we can take to be better, smarter consumers.


How can you make safe choices at the markets and grocery stores post-shutdown? Start by staying informed. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has created a list of the ten riskiest foods currently being monitored by the FDA. BuzzFeed’s Rachel Sanders also has a round up of the seven most important things you need to know about food safety during and after the shutdown. Perhaps most important on that list are the tips for how you might avoid eating contaminated food at any time. Start by limiting your purchase of any foreign-sourced produce and seafood – farmed seafood in particular – and staying aware of all of the risks. These are great guidelines to follow even when the FDA is fully operational. As Sanders notes, “Any shopper’s best defense is reading the label and knowing.”


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