It’s day seven of the U.S. government shutdown and imported food Americans are eating is passing through with little of the inspection it’s normally given.
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 percent 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.
Take shrimp for example. Americans now eat 4.2 pounds a year, way more than any other type of seafood. Some 90 percent of that is imported, much of it from Thailand, Indonesia, India and Bangladesh:
So consistently has shrimp imported from those four countries arrived already decomposed, covered in filth or teeming with salmonella, that FDA flags all shipments as "red alerts" (companies are exempted only after demonstrating health standard compliance).
Not now. Though the FDA says it will continue to act on "high-risk recalls" (pdf), Caroline Smith DeWaal, the food safety director of a non-profit group called the Center for Science in the Public Interest, doubts that’s sufficient. "I don’t have confidence that they have the capacity to recognize an emergency and respond to it," DeWaal told the Christian Science Monitor.
But county officials can’t do much when the outbreak comes from shipped food, as opposed to shoddy hygiene. The food-related outbreaks cross borders too, such as the outbreak of a rare strain of Hepatitis A that sickened 162 people in 10 states across the U.S. throughout the summer. The FDA traced the strain to a Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend sold at Costco, prompting a recall. After the FDA isolated the culprit, berries imported from Turkey, it placed the responsible company on red alert.
This post originally appeared on Quartz, an Atlantic partner site.