Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera
By Patty Lovera
As the Food & Water Watch blogger who seems to cover the depressing update beat, it was up to me to talk about what the federal government shutdown means for the food system. And the other food news that barely registered last week – the Farm Bill expired. Again.
First the shutdown. Obviously, the list of impacts of the federal government not being fully operational is a long one.
Food Safety: This is one is getting a lot of coverage, but it’s a mixed bag of who is at work and who isn’t, which has caused some confusion. Ron Nixon helped sort it out in yesterday’s New York Times.
USDA meat and poultry inspectors are on the job but under extremely challenging conditions – like their supervisors and other USDA employees they work with on a daily basis not being available and the stress caused by not knowing when they will get paid or whether or not they can take a sick day. The current salmonella outbreak linked to Foster Farms chicken plants in California started before the government shutdown and reflects several serious flaws in USDA management’s policies on what triggers a recall and when to crack down on plants that show food safety lapses.
Inspections for other foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration are not happening, except for inspections of imported foods. But before you breathe that sigh of relief, remember that in a normal year, FDA only looks at less than 2 percent of imported food (including seafood).
Another piece of the food safety system that is getting some attention because of the salmonella outbreak is the system for tracking foodborne illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention works to figure out if illnesses reported to state governments are part of a bigger outbreak that has crossed state lines. CDC plays a key role in the investigations to find the source of what is making people sick. And a lot of the CDC employees who do that were not at work last week. After media coverage of the salmonella outbreak this week, some of them were called back into work, but they are still not at full force.
There are lots of other ways that the shutdown impacts the food system beyond food safety. I’m not going to try to list them all here. But even a partial list shows how many ways agriculture and the food industry rely on some type of government program, and why we need those programs to work well (or this week, at all).
- Ranchers in South Dakota and other states that were hit with a blizzard that has killed large numbers of cattle can’t get advice or access any USDA programs that might help them, because the USDA’s local offices are closed (they also can’t access any disaster programs that used to exist for farmers because the Farm Bill has expired again, but more on that later).
- States are calculating how long they will be able to fund the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition assistance program for low-income mothers and young children without more funding from the federal government.
- Meat companies that have a new product to sell cannot get their labels approved by USDA (craft beer companies are having the same problem with seasonal beer labels that need to be approved by the Treasury Department).
- The National Organic Standards Board will not hold its bi-annual meeting at the end of October to vote on what materials are allowed to be used in organic agriculture and food, including a vote that could potentially end the use of an antibiotic called streptomycin in organic apple and pear orchards.
- Farmers can’t sign up for federal conservation programs designed to protect environmentally sensitive farmlands.
- USDA isn’t reporting data about crop yields and other market data used by farmers and ranchers to decide when and where to sell their crops and livestock.
The list goes on and on. And I didn’t even get to the Environmental Protection Agency, which took a huge hit with the vast majority of its employees off the job. But it boils down to the fact that there are a lot of federal programs that make the food system work that are affected by this shutdown and right now most of them are not working. The Republic majority in the House is using food safety as a piece of its negotiating strategy of trying to open the government bit by bit. We’ll see how that strategy plays out. But it’s worth remembering all of the other programs that need to run too.
And almost lost in the craziness of the shutdown was the fact that on October 1, the Farm Bill expired. If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been down this road before. Because I’m a big believer in recycling, I’ll let you read what we had to say when this happened last year here. This time around, drastic things aren’t likely to happen until the end of the year when some of the rules USDA has to follow for pricing commodities like milk will change.
So Congress has some time to finally finish this tortured process. But it’s not clear if there is enough time in the world to bridge the gap between the different bills passed by the House and Senate. The biggest difference is in nutrition programs – the House bill would not only take a huge cut in the funding for SNAP ($40 billion) but would also put the program on a different legislative schedule than the Farm Bill, which is an unprecedented step that could make the program vulnerable to attacks that being part of a bigger Farm Bill package has usually prevented.
There are other differences too, ranging from commodity programs to crop insurance to how catfish are inspected. But the core issue of what kind of nutrition assistance the government provides to low-income families is a huge one that the conference committee will have to figure out.
Or there is scenario B, in which some version of the Farm Bill gets attached to the debt ceiling/re-open the federal government/budget extravaganza that will have to happen eventually. If this sounds familiar too, that’s because the last time a Farm Bill passed at the end of 2012, it was attached to the “fiscal cliff” bill that was the result of a similar showdown in Congress.
So that is probably enough news on the dysfunction in D.C. for now. We will know more about the Farm Bill in coming weeks, including who will be on the conference committee that is supposed to figure out how to finish the process. We’ll tell you then who you need to contact to make sure they make the right choices between the House and Senate versions.