The Government Shutdown Is Putting These Foods in Danger

Food stamp funding also hangs in the balance as the US enters its longest shutdown in history.

Jan 15 2019, 3:00pm

Photo: Erik Isakson via Getty Images

We’re officially at the longest government shutdown in American history. On its 25th day, the current shutdown—over a disagreement over the construction of a border wall, and the billions of dollars to fund it—beats out Clinton’s previous record. But while President Trump continues to tweet, and chow down fast food with college sports champs, plenty of Americans ponder the more basic question of how to eat.

The government agencies affected by the shutdown (including the Departments of Agriculture, Transportation, and State) employ over 800,000 people, according to Vox, which means that right now, an estimated 420,000 are currently expected to work without pay and 380,000 are at home. Congress has agreed to provide back pay at some point, but for now, the lack of paychecks means, as you might expect, a tough time paying for bills, groceries, and housing for government workers.

And although federal employees are getting hit the hardest, most Americans are affected by the shutdown as well. If you like craft beer, for example, as MUNCHIES reported last week, bad news: the shutdown means that no new beers can be approved to go to market. Even beyond beer, though, between a lack of staff at the FDA, budget challenges for SNAP, and government employees not getting paychecks, the shutdown has a wide effect on how Americans eat.

Currently, the FDA is cutting back on food inspections, since almost half its staff have been put on leave. With plenty of processing plants considered at “high risk of causing food-borne illnesses,” according to the New York Times, food safety experts say that the agency, while stretched thin, might not catch signs of outbreaks early enough.

These fears could be overblown—after all, we haven’t heard of any food-borne illness outbreaks since the start of the shutdown—but being wary of risky or highly-processed foods wouldn’t hurt, according to several people in the know. A former seafood inspection official told the Times he’d avoid “clams, mussels, oysters, and other bivalves” until the shutdown is over. A dietician and attorney who specializes in disease prevention recommended to the Daily Meal skipping raw foods and processed meats, especially romaine, sprouts, and ground beef.

But for the millions of Americans relying on SNAP assistance, even buying food might be a problem. After concerns that funding would run out for February, the Trump administration figured out a way to distribute February’s SNAP benefits early. With that payout happening on such short notice, according to Politico, not only might recipients be confused, but grocery stores might be under-stocked and understaffed to fulfill demand, since, as Politico wrote, SNAP accounts for 10 percent of all grocery sales in the US each year.

Still, the current payout is only a short-term fix, and it’s not clear how government-funded food programs will proceed if the shutdown goes on even longer.

The small upside to all of this, however, is that the shutdown has served as a little reminder that people can be nicer than we sometimes think. Communities are rallying around their unpaid federal workers: Across D.C., restaurants, bars, and coffee shops are offering free or discounted food and drink for federal employees, and that idea is extending around the country, too. This weekend, in a show of solidarity, air traffic controllers in Canada sent pizzas to American controllers, who are working without pay.

All of this, of course, is ongoing and easily subject to change. According to a recent Twitter thread by doctor and FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, the FDA may restart high-risk inspections today. As has been the theme for the current administration, we don’t know what tomorrow might bring, but we can wait and see how it shakes out.