Shut Down This: Our Food Safety, Health & Welfare at Stake

While Congress battles it out over health care reform, the resulting government shutdown will have far-reaching impacts on food safety, environmental protections, food production, and farming. It also has serious implications for the health and nutrition of many Americans. Depending on the duration of the shut down, it could be nothing less than catastrophic for a great number of people.

For those same Americans to whom the Republicans are so opposed to providing adequate health care, the shutdown will also affect their already limited ability to access healthy foods, further harming their health. This will be especially true for those most in need—namely the nine million pregnant women and new mothers who rely on the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that states will be able to fund WIC for a week and beyond that additional funds may be available through October, however, the USDA warns that state agencies “may still face funding shortfalls associated with FY 2014 obligations during the shutdown.”

WIC is a critically important program that provides healthier food options for pregnant women and new mothers who are poor, have medical problems, or are considered to be at “nutrition risk.” WIC also provides important health referrals to the nine million people who currently rely on the program. And when considering the negative long-term effects that poor nutrition has in utero and in young children, the true costs of cutting funding for WIC have not been accounted for.

Which brings us back to health care. Many politicians fail to see that the state of the economy depends in large part on the state of health among all Americans. American health is on a downward trend and by cutting crucial food funding for the poor, especially pregnant women and new mothers, we will only exacerbate this trend.

The shut down also means that the USDA’s communications offices are now incommunicato. So, if important information about food safety comes to light, we probably won’t know.

USDA databases that provide import market information for farmers will also be closed. Modern Farmer reports that, Markets rely on reports from the USDA to set the price of soy, wheat, corn, beef, etc. Without an October report traders would be adjusting prices in the dark and farmers would be selling without knowing the real value of their crops.”

Small family farmers will also be affected since many are dependent on loans from the USDA and delays on loans will likely cost many their farms — as many as 1,400 small farmers are likely to lose their farms as a result of the shutdown, according to Rural Advancement Foundation International.

Other agency shutdowns that will affect our food system include:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is essentially completely shut down except for current work on Superfund sites. This means the EPA will stop monitoring air pollution and pesticide use.
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which will eliminate much of its food-safety checks, including “routine establishment inspections…monitoring of imports, notification programs (e.g., food contact substances, infant formula), and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making.”
  • The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which has stopped taking new patients for clinical research and its hotline for medical questions is closed.
  • The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which has stopped its flu program and says that it will have a “significantly reduced capacity to respond to outbreak investigations.” The CDC has also stopped providing “support to state and local partners for infectious disease surveillance.”

And while the USDA will continue to inspect meat, dairy, eggs and food imports with 87 percent of its employees still working, the agency has also said that if a violation is indeed found it may not have the resources to fully investigate. The USDA plan also warns that, “A lengthy hiatus would affect the safety of human life and have serious adverse effects on the industry, the consumer and the Agency.”

The FDA, which is responsible for inspecting the majority of the food industry, will not be functioning in this capacity during the shutdown. Typically, the FDA inspects 80 food facilities a day and files reports on those in violation of health codes. This means an end to important investigations and reports, like the one that brought a peanut facility to a close last year after a salmonella outbreak.

It’s beginning to look like what Republicans have wanted all along: To eliminate social programs to help the poor and scale back on regulations particularly when it comes to the environment and our food supply. But what kind of country would that look like? Currently four out of five Americans live in danger of falling into poverty and are struggling with joblessness.

These Americans are reliant on social programs like WIC or food stamps (which will continue to be funded at least through October) and without this help many will be forced to decide between medications, rent, or food.

Every American would be best served by understanding that the health of Americans comes first and defunding social programs, regulatory agencies, and independent research will only further undermine America’s deteriorating health, which in the end, will cost us a lot more than a failing economy.