What the U.S. Government Has to Do With Your Popcorn Shrimp
The shutdown again offers a window into the workings of dry government agencies: inspection of America's seafood imports may be delayed.
Correction (via Quartz), Oct. 7: This article overstated the effect of the U.S. government shutdown on inspections of imported food. We are still looking into the full extent of employee furloughs at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and how those are affecting inspections. Steven Immergut, an FDA spokesman, said the agency is continuing to review all food imports, but there “may be delays” in physical examinations due to the shutdown.
The article should have noted that 578 FDA employees are still working “to inspect regulated products and manufacturers, conduct sample analysis on products, and review imports offered for entry into the U.S.,” according to the government (pdf, pg. 8). We have asked the FDA how many people are normally employed to check food imports and are waiting to hear back.
Immergut did clarify that the agency is not currently able to add companies to the list of “import alerts”—referred to incorrectly in this article as “red alerts”—unless there is a life-threatening emergency.
The article, as originally published, is below.
It’s day four of the U.S. government shutdown and imported food Americans are eating is passing through with little of the inspection it’s normally given.
Thanks to the shutdown, food safety inspectors at the US Food and Drug Administration, which monitors 80% of the US’s food supply, are on furlough until the budget gets passed, as Food Safety News reports.
That means the FDA isn’t carrying out some of its most critical responsibilities. First is the FDA’s oversight of food imports. The furlough means more than 90% of the foreign seafood Americans eat is coming through unchecked, as well as half the fruit and one-fifth of the vegetables.
One of the big ways the FDA protects consumers is by blocking shipments from companies with a history of tainted foods, monitoring them through what it calls ”red alerts.” These include categories like filthiness (meaning excrement),fruits covered in pesticides, drug-doped seafood, dairy products with melamine, dietary supplements that might have mad cow disease, e. coli-containing seafood and candy laced with lead.
The FDA blocks shipments from tens of thousands such violators. Now, however, there’s no one to stop those foods from finding their way onto American plates.
Take shrimp for example. Americans now eat 4.2 pounds (1.9 kg) a year, way more than any other type of seafood. Some 90% of that is imported, much of it from Thailand, Indonesia, India and Bangladesh: