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Federal government shutdown: Is my food still safe?

For weeks, some of the largest news stories have focused on our nation’s federal government shutdown. No matter where people stand on the political spectrum, we are all united by the need for a safe, wholesome and secure food supply. If federal employees are not working, does that mean federal food inspections halt as well?

Growing up on a dairy farm, my family has always been subject to state and federal inspections to make sure we provide the highest quality of milk for consumers. Each inspection is a chance for us to learn what we are doing well and make improvements if necessary.

Because of the importance of these inspections, I reached out to Jeffrey Swenson, livestock meat specialist, at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Swenson reassured me USDA Meat Safety Inspectors working for the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) are considered essential employees and have been working through the government shutdown.

“Without inspectors, meat and poultry processing plants are prohibited by law from operating,” Swenson said. “If they wouldn’t be able to operate, 500,000 meat plant workers would be impacted and meat supply would be disrupted.” Swenson added DATCP inspectors are, of course, continuing their work at state-inspected facilities.

Steve Ingham, the administrator of the division of food and recreational safety at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, also offered his expertise on this topic. The federal shutdown had little if any impact on the inspections of retail food establishments like grocery stores, convenience stores, bakeries and restaurants, according to Ingham. Those facilities are inspected at least once a year by state or local personnel. While the federal government does not handle those inspections, it does oversee the FDA Model Food Code and coordinates the standardization of state and local programs.

Food processing plants, food warehouses, dairy farms, and dairy plants are inspected by state employees about one to four times each year, but less frequently by federal inspectors. “Much of this federal work has been halted by the shutdown,” Ingham said. “Even when the federal government is open, the vast majority of inspections nationwide are done by state inspection staff.”

As I gather around the dinner table and watch the latest news updates, I am reassured that even in the government shutdown, food follows strict standards for quality before it is shared among my family and friends.

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