How FDA furloughs could affect what we eat

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Thousands of "non-essential" government employees remained at home Thursday, including employees of the US Food & Drug Administration, which is tasked with ensuring much of what we eat every day is safe, wholesome, sanitary and properly labeled.

The cuts to the FDA means fruits, vegetables and 85% of the food in your grocery store could be at risk.

USDA inspectors are still on the job. So meat, poultry and eggs should be fine.

But when it comes to the FDA, a physical science technician warns many food inspectors are considered "non-essential" employees.

"There's new food that's coming in every day. Foreign food that's being imported in from other countries that make it to the ports every day and without the inspectors that you spoke of earlier, not on their job in order to be able to go and manage or observe or inspect those food products they may make it into the port and we don't know if they are safe or unsafe for the American consumer," said Terri Lewis,  FDA physical science technician.

Lewis says all but about five employees in her Kansas City office are on furlough.
She wonders if the same percentages apply to the inspectors.

"We're speaking maybe 5 people out of 200 that may be working and perhaps they're covering all the food entries in the ports. So where 200 people were covering it, now they're may be five," said Lewis.

In fact, the FDA has a little more than half of its employees still on the job, but a contingency plan published by Health and Human Services said the agency will be unable to maintain the majority of its food safety activities.

"Any candies, any baked goods, any cheeses, any you know, canned foods, that's all inspected by FDA," said State Consumer Food Safety Specialist for Kansas State University and the University of Missouri, Londa Nwadike.

Food-borne illness is also a problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control, each year one in six Americans gets sick from contaminated food.

"Food borne illness can be a life or death situation even if the government is working at full capacity. But yeah, I mean the shutdown would definitely increase the likelihood that people could get food borne illness," said Londa Nwadike, a state food specialist.

She says in the short-term consumers shouldn't worry, but she says the longer the shutdown continues, the easier it would be for something to slip through the cracks.

"When a processor or an imported knows the FDA could do a random inspection, at least they are going to more aware and more alert and so you know, this potentially could be a time when somebody tries to push something through that maybe isn't as safe as it should be. There's definitely a chance that the food isn't as safe as it would be otherwise but I don't feel like consumers need to be overly concerned," Nwadike said.

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