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Even Before The Shutdown, Food Supply Regulated Itself


Over the past few weeks, a debate has raged here in Washington about the U.S. food supply. The big question: Is the government shutdown making our food less safe. Since October 1st, both the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have had to furlough workers, and that includes some workers involved in the inspection of food processing plants and who monitor outbreaks of food-borne illness.

NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now. Hi, Allison.


SIEGEL: What's the story? Should we be more worried about the safety of the food we're eating now or compared to before the shutdown began?

AUBREY: You know, let's make clear that essential workers such as meat inspectors have been on the job since the shutdown began. Every slaughterhouse, meat production facility, in order to operate, has to have these USDA inspectors. So that has not been interrupted. I think the shutdown has affected other government programs integral to food. We reported last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to bring back a whole bunch of furloughed workers, to respond to a food-borne illness outbreak investigation.

Also, it is true that the Food and Drug Administration has had to cease some activities, such as inspections at plants and some monitoring of food imports due to the reduced staff. And so, you know, does this mean that in some cases where perhaps imported seafood may have been checked the FDA has not been able to keep up normal levels of surveillance - yes. But I should point out that only about two percent of food products entering the country are physically examined, even under normal circumstances.

So it's not as we went from, you know, a system where everything is inspected than nothing.

SIEGEL: But most of us have not shut down eating food...


AUBREY: That's right.


SIEGEL: ...or even seafood, so how does my grocery store make sure that the fish or the seafood that I'm buying is safe in that case?

AUBREY: Well, I think here's part of the story that a lot of people don't realize. Major retailers are increasingly relying on independent, third-party certifiers to make sure their products are safe. So if I walk into, say, a Costco, and pick out some fish - some tilapia or shrimp - Costco has mandated that all of its suppliers provide what's called a Certificate of Analysis. And this indicates that the product comes from facilities that have best practices in place, and do screenings for things like pathogens and contaminants.

So, you know, a lot of the retailers are moving in this direction. Wal-Mart and some of the big grocery store chains do the same thing.

SIEGEL: That's seafood. Is it also true for fruits and vegetables, all food?

AUBREY: Yes. Well, throughout the produce industry it's typical to have these third-party certifiers. You know, basically they come in and do audits of the facilities and farms. And after a big outbreak of food-borne illness linked to spinach, about 10 years ago, the whole produce industry sort of got together and rethought things. And they've set up the systems to really minimize the likelihood of contamination.

So, for instance, a lot of outbreaks are caused by - bear with me here for moment...


AUBREY: ...feces, feces from animal waste, from people, from water. And so, the industry has devised practices and guidelines on the farms and in production facilities, to really minimize the risk.

SIEGEL: But when you say third-party inspections, are we talking about in effect the growers, the food industry itself inspecting itself?


AUBREY: Well, I think what I want to make clear here is - yes and no. But what I want to make clear here is that there are really two systems in place. There's the government system. And then there are these industry quality assurance programs, shall we say, where the industry sort of gets together and does this collectively. And, you know, no one system is likely to be completely successful. There's never going to be a time when every piece of lettuce or every piece of fish is tested.

So we've really entered an era where there is a marriage between government regulation and this industry self-regulation.

SIEGEL: And in a word, you're saying we can still eat.

AUBREY: Yeah, as in the end, you know, we do as consumers manage the risk, too. That's why we're always told to cook our food properly and to clean our cooking surfaces.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Allison Aubrey.

AUBREY: Thank you very much.


SIEGEL: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
Robert Siegel
Robert Siegel is senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel is still at it hosting the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reporting on stories and happenings all over the globe. As a host, Siegel has reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.
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