US government shutdown: FDA and USDA feel the squeeze as key services come under threat

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08 Jan 2019 --- The continuing US partial government shutdown is fueling concerns that policies, programs and services run by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) could be under threat, as a result of the standoff between Democrats and President Trump over funding for the US-Mexico border wall. There is mounting unease that the ongoing shutdown could impact on the millions of residents who rely on the country’s food stamp program, which is run by the USDA, one of the agency’s that remains unfunded.

An emergency fund totaling US$3 billion was recently issued by US Congress for the food stamps program, but there are growing concerns over how long that funding will last as the shutdown shows no signs of coming to an end. 

The program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), provides nutritional assistance to more than 45 million low income families and saves children, the disabled and the elderly from going hungry. Under the Obama Administration, Democrats had supported SNAP, calling to maintain or perhaps increase funding, while the Republicans have previously spoken about possible cuts to the program and possibly taking it away from the USDA. 

In any case, concerns are growing that this service could be under threat as funding may run out.

The shutdown is now in its 18th day and President Trump has warned that it could go on for months. 

Speaking with FoodIngredientsFirst, Council of Responsible Nutrition (CRN) President & CEO, Steve Mister, says: “We are definitely starting to feel the effects of the partial government shutdown.” 

“There are people all over America’s heartland who are sitting at home and not drawing a pay cheque. We are probably talking about thousands of people. Then there are FDA district offices all over the country which are not staff, closed; facility inspections are on hiatus as it were. There is no one there,” he notes.

“There are a ton of issues that are very important to us that are just not being dealt with and cannot be dealt with for as long as this shutdown continues,” Mister explains that he believes the Administration is starting to appreciate the size and scale of the impact the shutdown is beginning to have after initially not really recognizing the sweeping affects the shutdown would bring. 

The Washington-based trade association/lobby group advocates on behalf of supplement-makers and works with the FDA to communicate a responsible supplement market. 

“It really is having such a sizeable, real effect and the longer this goes on, the larger the impacts will likely become. Both sides look like they are at an impasse right now over the funding of the wall and we just don’t know when this will be resolved.”

Click to Enlarge“The FDA has targets of inspections for instance and it has a timetable it needs to stick to, but it will not be able to meet deadlines and carry out inspections which means missing targets.”

“Then there are the larger policy concerns. For instance, the FDA did say before Christmas that it was willing to have a conversation about the legal path to market for cannabidiol (CBD), but those types of conversations simply cannot happen for as long as the shutdown continues. This is just one example of something that is on the radar right now.”

Ongoing impact on FDA

The FDA says it can still maintain essential public health-related operations even with its funding lapsed and operations will continue to the extent permitted by law, maintaining core functions that address imminent threats to the safety of human life. 

It will continue to respond to emergencies – such as monitoring for and quickly responding to outbreaks related to foodborne illness as well as support high-risk food and medical product recalls when products endanger consumers and patients and pursue civil and criminal investigations as appropriate. 

It will also continue screening food and medical products that are imported to the US. 

However, during this period of lapsed funding, the FDA does not have the legal authority to accept user fees assessed for FY 2019 until an FY 2019 appropriation or Continuing Resolution for the FDA is enacted. This includes regulatory submissions for 2019 that require a fee payment and that are submitted during the lapse period.

As part of a government shutdown, the federal government typically temporarily closes the affected activities involving the furlough of non-essential personnel and curtailment of agency activities and services.

Two previous shutdowns have occurred during the Donald Trump administration: a three-day shutdown during January 2018 and a funding gap that occurred overnight on February 9, 2018, which did not result in workers being furloughed.

But this ongoing shutdown, which began during December 2018, over proposed funding for a US-Mexico border wall, seems to be going strong. President Trump has categorically declared that he will not compromise on the Mexico border wall and a recent Tweet says there is “not much headway” on resolving the shutdown as key services are threatened.

Currently, hundreds of thousands of federal employees are working without pay through this latest partial government shutdown. 

USDA – delays and backlogs

Some functions of the USDA are suspended which means the agriculture industry has gone without some data and services it relies on. This means that farmers and ranchers have limited market information that can be used for price discovery and risk management operations for the day-to-day running of their businesses. 

Due to the lapse in federal funding, work on the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and Office of the Chief Economist – World Agricultural Outlook Board (OCE-WAOB) reports remain suspended. This has been the case since December 22, 2018.  

According to the USDA, given the lead time required for the analysis and compilation of Crop Production, Crop Production-Annual, World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE), Grain Stocks, Rice Stocks, Winter Wheat and Canola Seedings, and Cotton Ginnings reports, those reports will not be released on January 11, as originally scheduled, even if funding is restored before that date.  

The date of all NASS and OCE-WAOB releases will be determined and made public once funding has been restored, says the USDA. 

Another problem for farmers is the fact that local Farm Service Agency offices are closed which means they can't apply for new loans or receive payments for relief from US-China trade tensions.

With the shutdown affecting around 25 percent of the government resulting in approximately 800,000 federal employees being furloughed – temporarily laid off – or forced to work without pay – the repercussions are rippling across the country. President Trump is due to visit the US-Mexico border wall this week, but talks with Democrats are still failing to produce any sort of resolutions right now and even when the shutdown ends, there will be the long-term effects of backlogs to deal with. 

By Gaynor Selby

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