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Sylvain CharleboisThe U.S. government shutdown poses a threat to food safety in the United States and Canada.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for 80 percent of all food facilities in the U.S. It announced recently that it has had to change its daily operations as a result of the partial shutdown, which began on Dec. 22.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), responsible for the 8,000 meat packing plants in the country, has made no comment yet.

Canadians should worry if this stalemate drags on.

The Canadian agri-food economy is highly vulnerable, especially during the winter. Canada is by far the largest destination for U.S. exports of high-value agricultural products, with a 26.4 percent market share in 2017 and a value of US$16.2 billion. More than 44 percent of our imported fruits and 62 percent of imported vegetables come from the U.S.

So it’s safe to say that food safety governance and practices in the U.S. matter to Canadians.

The FDA has suspended routine food safety inspections due to the lapse in federal funding, although it has issued statements to reassure consumers and the industry that the agency is operating to the best of its abilities.

The FDA is correct – if we only look at inspections, there’s no need to worry.

Most meat plants are autonomous and have inspectors on the payroll. Regular audits are conducted, so there’s no need for daily inspections by the USDA. The same rules apply to the FDA. Most facilities are inspected every other year and weren’t scheduled to be inspected during the government shutdown.

So inspections won’t be affected by what’s happening in Washington. But that doesn’t mean that food safety compliance across the industry is not compromised – far from it. 

The shutdown has hampered the ability of both the USDA and the FDA to provide regulatory oversight for a system that feeds millions of people around the world, including millions of Canadians. Any outbreaks or emerging issues won’t be assessed or addressed until everyone is back at work.

One example is California’s romaine lettuce disaster. Hundreds of regular and unannounced audits are conducted by the industry every year. But for some reason, the number of audits has dropped by 47 percent since 2010. The industry hasn’t given any reason for this significant decline, despite the latest massive recall affecting leafy greens.

Consumer confidence has been severely affected by the series of alerts and recalls. Canadian grocers can’t even give away romaine lettuce.

Proper regulatory oversight would allow us to learn from this incident and make our food safety systems more robust.

When it comes to food safety, most of us zero in on the number of inspections as a performance metric. It’s comforting to know a public regulator is protecting the public from what’s often seen as big, bad industry.

But the gridlock in the U.S. is affecting fundamental food safety governance. Food safety regulators likely can’t verify and validate data, or offer systemic analysis on trends and threats to food industry. And most companies can’t do that on their own.

Notably, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has lost a key partner. Regulators talk to regulators when outbreaks or issues arise. Without active agencies in the U.S., it’s challenging for the CFIA to engage with Americans to resolve issues, preferably before they happen.

The symbiosis between food safety regulators and industry is critical. Sharing data averts mistakes. The paralyzed U.S. government is preventing that from happening.

The shutdown was predictable, so most of the work that had to be done at the end of the year and in early 2019 was taken care of in advance. But as the shutdown continues, the chance of food safety problems is heightened.

Running the risk of compromising the health of consumers for the sake of building a wall along the U.S./Mexico border is beyond ridiculous.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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