As the government reopens after the longest shutdown in U.S. history, many consumers may have lingering concerns about the safety of the food supply and whether food was properly inspected while the government was shut down and employees were furloughed.
During the shutdown, many media outlets and consumer advocacy organizations claimed that the shutdown may have increased public health risk due to the reduction in food safety inspection activities by the Food and Drug Administration.
This presented an unusual public relations challenge for food companies subject to FDA oversight. Many consumers trust government food inspections to ensure the safety of their food. While inspections by the FDA were significantly reduced by the shutdown, it is important to note that inspections by state and local government officials, as well as those by third party auditors were not impacted.
Nevertheless, during the shutdown, experts warned in the media that the reduction of FDA inspections could have negative consequences for public health. News outlets published numerous articles about the risks to food safety, and lists highlighting the top foods that certain experts say you should avoid during a shutdown. And as a result, there could be lingering effects on consumer confidence and behavior, even after the government reopens.
Here are three key points that consumers should be aware of, and that food companies should highlight in their communications, to help reduce concerns about the effect of a government shutdown on food safety.
First, many companies are already very proactive when it comes to food safety. Neglecting food safety is simply bad for business. A company that has worked for decades building the trust of consumers doesn’t want to jeopardize their reputation and commitment to food safety during a temporary government shutdown. It takes years to build that trust and only a minute – only one lapse – to tear it apart.
Additionally, FDA food safety regulations are the floor. Many companies already go above and beyond the FDA’s requirements when it comes to food safety, and the shutdown can be an opportunity for those companies to talk about those steps. People are thinking about food safety, and that’s exactly the time to tell the story about the steps a company or industry is already taking. The point of these stories is not to arouse fear, but to provide assurance to customers that the commitment to food safety is unwavering.
Second, the shutdown is an opportunity to explain to consumers how the food safety system works. It’s not the case that FDA inspectors are in residence at every farm, every food processing plant, or constantly stalking the aisles of every grocery store. In fact, the FDA has established a goal of inspecting food processing facilities at least annually, though the number and diversity of facilities means that FDA does not consistently meet this goal. The system accounts for this. State and local government agencies inspect farms and food processing facilities against FDA regulatory standards.
Likewise, these facilities are regularly inspected by auditors from third party organizations including representatives of restaurants and retailers, commodity organizations, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service and other organizations. As a result, companies have built up long-standing practices and procedures that are in place regardless of the frequency of FDA inspection. Food inspectors don’t visit every food facility every day, but any smart company acts like they might.
Grocery stores, for example, have extensive controls and rules in place for their suppliers. Restaurants build their businesses around carefully sourcing their ingredients. Food processing relies on a high-quality and reliable supply chain. None of these systems disappear if the FDA is furloughed. The shutdown is an opportunity for the most responsible companies to talk about these systems that always have been in place.
Third, it’s important to know that even when most FDA inspections were affected by the shutdown, many food safety functions of the government continue, including inspection of meat, poultry and egg products facilities by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service which was not interrupted by the shutdown. Even during the shutdown, as of January 15, the FDA resumed food inspections for items considered “high-risk,” such as soft cheeses, infant formula or seafood. The FDA inspectors will not receive pay until the shutdown ends, but many are on the job and keeping the highest-risk parts of the supply chain in check.
The last big piece of food safety legislation passed in in the United States was the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011. This was a wide-reaching piece of legislation, but it has an important aspect as it relates to the shutdown: it created a strategy to improve and enhance food safety activities relying heavily on cooperation between the FDA and agencies of state and local government. And, it is important to emphasize that those state and local agencies are not impacted by the lapse of federal funding to federal agencies. Companies can highlight this ongoing role.
The House and Senate agreed to fund the government until Feb. 15, ending the longest shut down in history. But if there isn’t a deal made by then, the government could shut down again, leading to insecurity about the food system again, and companies need to be prepared to properly message around the shutdown.
Food companies have an important story to tell. Food safety protocols continue, despite some temporary limitations of federal oversight. Companies have strong incentives already given consumer safety is their priority, they have long-standing processes in place, and they still have state and local oversight, private sector oversight, as well as some ongoing federal oversight.
Food safety and properly handling food is always important – not just during a government shutdown. Companies know it. The FDA knows it. The food inspectors know it. Now is a great time to tell consumers: the government is shut down, but consumer protection must and will go on.