Shutdown Not Affecting Houston Food Safety, Yet

Think of the government shutdown as you would a hurricane. Stock up on canned food, sit tight and wait it out. Evacuate if you must, but you're going to have to travel pretty far to get out of this mess.

The government has been getting a lot of (much deserved) grief over the shutdown, and I was only half kidding when I told my friends yesterday that I give up, that I'm moving to Europe (where things are clearly better?). I'm not kidding about the canned food thing, though. Buy canned food. For real. One of the effects of the government shutdown is the cessation of "safety activities" by the Food and Drug Administration.

According to a contingency plan released by the Department of Health and Human Services, the "FDA will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities." FDA will also have to cease safety activities including "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."

Fan-flippin-tastic, Feds.

The contingency plan also notes that the FDA will keep up "limited activities related to its user fee funded programs including the activities in the Center for Tobacco Products," as well as "maintaining critical consumer protection to handle emergencies, high-risk recalls, civil and criminal investigations, import entry review, and other critical public health issues."

What this means is "high-risk recalls" will still be managed, but the FDA won't be carrying out routine inspections, and some import monitoring is gonna have to give. Caroline Smith DeWaal, the food safety director of nonprofit consumer advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells the Christian Science Monitor: "The FDA, in partnership with the states, inspects about 80 facilities a day, and they're not sending people to do those routine inspections."

DeWaal notes that while that's not ideal, a bigger issue is that the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will be seriously understaffed in the event of an emergency.

"They say they will retain some capacity for emergencies," DeWaal says, "but if you don't have CDC in place and you're operating on a skeleton crew anyway, I don't have confidence that they have the capacity to recognize an emergency and respond to it."

PulseNet, the food-borne illness tracking database at the CDC, normally has eight to ten people monitoring clusters of sicknesses for outbreaks. Because of the furlough, it's operating with three employees only, and Chris Braden, the director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases at the CDC, admits he's concerned.

Braden tells NPR that the limited team is continuing to monitor already identified clusters, but "if one of those clusters blows up into something big...we would be beyond our capacity."

DeWaal was less, shall we say, diplomatic in her response to the partial shutdown of some of the government's necessary regulatory agencies.

"Speaker Boehner should not let food safety and other vital government functions be held hostage just because an extreme faction in his caucus opposes the health care reform law," she writes in a statement on the CSPI website. The government's food safety functions are far more pressing than the unrealistic demands being made by petulant extremists in the House."

So, while this all sounds awful, it doesn't really seem to be affecting Houston, right?

Well, sort of.

The obvious concern is that food might not be as carefully inspected as it should be before it winds up on the shelves at H-E-B or Randalls. I also wondered if local restaurants would have issues importing vital ingredients or if chefs were concerned about the safety of the shipments they receive.

"It really hasn't affected us yet," says Kaz Edwards, chef de cuisine at Uchi. "The good thing about here is our purveyors are always really on top of what's going on. Everybody so far has said everything's good."

I got a similar thumbs up from a representative for Spec's when I inquired about the chain's numerous imports. Evidently, Spec's does not import items like cheese directly, and most of its suppliers keep a good quantity of products in stock. It would only turn into a problem if the government shutdown lasts longer than a few weeks.

I also called the Port of Galveston to see if all things were functioning as they should be. When asked if the shutdown had had any effect on the port, I received a curt reply: "None whatsoever." Good to know.

More good news is that some Houston businesses are offering discounts on products to help ease the misery of the shutdown (but only to furloughed government workers). Saint Arnold is offering $3 off lunch to furloughed workers, while Gratifi tweeted, "Federal employees are people too. 20% off (with ID) while your employer d*cks around with the country." Well said, brotha. Gratifi has also invented a new cocktail, the Furlough, which is a delightful blend of cava, whiskey, lemon juice, molasses and bitters. Emphasis on the bitters. 'Cause that's how we feel.

While Houston restaurants seem to be largely unaffected -- for now -- other government agencies, like state and national parks and that big thing that deals with space and astronauts and what-not, are suffering. Only 549 of NASA's 18,000 employees are allowed to continue working during the furlough.

Elsewhere in the country, government workers flocked to bars after an "orderly shutdown" on Tuesday to drown their sorrows, according to the New York Post. AMC movie theaters are hoping to soften the financial blow felt by government workers (but not Congress, of course) by offering them a free small popcorn, whether they purchase a movie ticket or not. "The offer is good until common sense is restored in Washington, D.C., or, more likely, until the shutdown ends or we run out of free popcorn," AMC announced in an ad.

So while Ted Cruz, Texas's most famous senator, spends his self-imposed vacation contradicting himself on Twitter, we should go out to eat while restaurants are still able to serve food that has been inspected for safety.

And remember, there's plenty of SPAM on supermarket shelves.

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