The wheels may have fallen off the government for the first half of October, but produce industry sources report minimal disruption in movement of produce.
While many thousands of federal employees are furloughed because of the government shutdown that began Oct. 1, border officials in Nogales, Ariz., were still clearing loads of produce coming into the U.S., and fee-based quality inspections were being carried out by Arizona state officials.
“It is business as usual in terms of processing trucks and people,” said Allison Moore, communications director of the Nogales, Ariz.-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas. Moore said U.S. Customs and the Food and Drug Administration officials were covering all the lanes of entry. “We haven’t seen any delays at this point.”
The Arizona Department of Agriculture carries out quality inspections for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the border, and Moore said that because the inspections are user-fee based, there has been no change in the pace of inspections at the border, whether or not those inspections were required to comply with U.S. marketing orders or called voluntarily by handlers.
Likewise, fee-based inspections of growers mandated by the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement have not been interrupted.
“It doesn’t have an impact on our program or the way we go about doing it,” said Scott Horsfall, chief executive officer of Sacramento-based California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, All the auditors who conduct grower inspections are employees of the state of California and not affected by the federal shutdown, he said.
The shutdown has not impeded exports of apples and pears, said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash. Schlect said an indirect effect of shuttering federal agencies has been the cancellation of meetings important to trade negotiations, he said.
“We are eager to have a meeting in China of plant quarantine officials from the two countries, but that is a little under a cloud until they can get this thing resolved,” Schlect said.
FDA laboratories are staffed with a skeleton crew and only working on food samples that may be an imminent food safety risk, said David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for United Fresh Produce Association in Washington, D.C.
“What that means is that routine surveillance samples that FDA takes from retail are not getting done,” Gombas said Oct. 15.
Work on regulations relating to the Food Safety Modernization Act has been suspended during the shutdown.
The Alliance for a Stronger FDA reported the federal shutdown has led to the furloughing of 6,600 FDA employees, or about 45% of the workforce.
Gombas said no FDA laboratory staff is available to process produce submitted to the agency because of food-safety related import alerts. “There is nobody around to review it,” he said.
In that case, loads flagged for FDA automatic review because of previous food safety incidents are apparently not crossing into the U.S., Gombas said.
FDA officials at the border are clearing loads of imported produce but not taking routine samples for testing, Gombas said.
The lack of USDA f.o.b. price reports during the shutdown does leave a data void for some buyers, said Jay Martini, Chicago-based broker. Foodservice companies use the USDA price reports to help them set prices, Martini said.
“There are pricing programs that are based off USDA reports every week,” he said.
Steven Grossman, deputy executive director for the Silver Spring, Md.-based Alliance for a Stronger FDA, said he has received calls from media about the effect of the government shutdown on food safety.
“The way I’m answering people is that there are three levels of protection: There are the producers, there is the FDA and the stuff that consumers ought to be doing themselves,” he said.
Grossman said the typical consumer does not pay attention to food safety principles at home such as washing produce before they consume it.
“It is more important now that FDA is not in the picture, but when the FDA goes back to work they still should do those things,” he said.