Food safety inspections at Maine’s seafood processing plants are delayed by a few weeks because of the federal government shutdown, state officials said Tuesday, and if the shutdown persists, it could cause more severe problems with the annual inspection program.
“It has so far had a minimal impact on us. If it went on for too long, we would have to analyze what we could do,” said Ron Dyer, director of quality assurance and regulations for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
As part of the Food and Drug Administration’s sweeping food safety program, the federal agency contracts with Maine, which does 32 unannounced safety inspections per year at about 40 seafood processing plants. Maine receives about $800 for each inspection from the FDA, and coordinates inspections with the agency’s staff.
Dyer said he’s not sure if the state will be permitted to temporarily cover the cost of the program if the shutdown continues. Once the federal government reopens, he said, the seafood inspections could resume late this year or be shifted to the beginning of 2014.
Dyer said the state may do abbreviated inspections of the seafood processing plants in the interim, depending on how long the shutdown lasts.
In one example of how inspections can affect the seafood industry and safeguard public health, the FDA temporarily shut down the Portland Shellfish Co. in 2011 and 2012 for “numerous violations” of federal laws and health regulations including a positive test for listeria, a bacteria that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections. The company was ordered to improve sanitary conditions in its plant.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects meat, poultry and egg products, the FDA inspects seafood and all other food products.
The FDA works with Maine to schedule eight inspections of seafood processing plants per quarter. Since the fourth quarter of 2013 started Oct. 1, the day that the federal government shutdown began, the fall and winter schedule has not been set.
“We have been in limbo since then,” Dyer said.
While seafood inspections have been delayed, meat and poultry inspections continue, Dyer said, because they fall under the USDA. Meat inspectors are considered essential employees and have continued working during the shutdown, Dyer said.
Among the myriad of problems caused by the shutdown are furloughs of workers who monitor food safety, said Amanda Hitt, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Food Integrity Campaign, a nonprofit watchdog group.
Hitt said that while the meat, poultry and egg inspectors have so far been considered essential employees, furloughs of back-office USDA employees could eventually snarl operations, such as the delivery of labels, including recall labels for contaminated food.
While the USDA has kept its meat inspectors working during the shutdown, the FDA has furloughed 45 percent of its employees, some of whom are involved in food safety, according to government documents.
Hitt said the food supply is not being jeopardized substantially so far, but if the shutdown continues, the nation could head into dangerous territory.
“We do not want to roll the dice with the safety of the U.S. food supply,” Hitt said. “One little hiccup could lead to quite a disaster. You could have the possibility for massive illnesses.”
According to a memo from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “routine establishment” inspections of food industry facilities are suspended during the shutdown.
“The FDA will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities,” the memo said. “FDA will also have to cease safety activities such as routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, 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 memo noted that nearly 700 FDA employees whose jobs are related to food safety inspections will remain on the job during the shutdown.
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: