Operations

Government shutdown may not affect restaurants as seriously as reported

Photograph: Shutterstock

Despite widespread reports the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has suspended oversight of food safety during the federal shutdown, the agency says that function will continue as usual because of emergency funding. 

statement posted on the agency’s website reads, “All our work is important, but only some of our work is permitted to continue during a lapse in funding.” Among those continuing functions, it specifies, are “monitoring for and quickly responding to outbreaks related to foodborne illness and the flu.”

Similarly,instructions posted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (USHS) contradict assertions that restaurants are impeded from hiring workers during the shutdown because applicants’ legal right to work cannot be verified. Instant checks via the E-Verify system have indeed been suspended, but the USHS explains on its website that the requirement of validating a worker’s status within three days has also been temporarily revoked. Restaurants can continue to hire, provided an I-9 form is completed as usual and presented with materials supporting the applicant’s right to work in the U.S.

The bureau said it will provide employers with instructions for verifying new hires’ eligibility once regular funding resumes.

Even with the federal government shut down, sanitation inspections of restaurants are unaffected because those checks are conducted by local health agencies, not the FDA or other federal authorities. The FDA usually gets involved in a food-safety issue at the central processing level, and typically when instances of a contamination occur across multiple states. 

Media assertions that the FDA was suspending its watchdog functions surfaced on the same day the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), another federal guardian of food safety, announced that an E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce is over. 

The CDC’s posting on Jan. 9 is itself an indication that at least some functions of the agency are continuing. Many federal agencies posted notices that their websites would not be updated as long as they were denied funding.

Among them were the other federal entities with food-safety oversight, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

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