The Most Dangerous Foods to Avoid During the Government Shutdown

food safety
The government shutdown is having a direct effect on agencies that oversee food safety. (Image: @eric_urquhart via Twenty20)

To date, the United States is in the longest government shutdown in history. Many government agencies are affected, including those that oversee the safety of the food supply.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service, an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), is responsible for the safety of our nation's meat, poultry, and egg supply. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for inspection of food processing facilities, dairy farms, and animal feed processors.

When the government shuts down, or has a partial shutdown, these government agencies may not have the funds to maintain operations and this could mean food safety woes for Americans. The good news? USDA inspections still occur during a government shutdown, according to the USDA, as inspections of meat, poultry, and eggs are "necessary to protect life." The bad news? The FDA doesn't have the same policies and they oversee 75 percent of the food supply of the United States.

Bill Marler, a food safety attorney, told CNN that he would personally avoid foods that are prepared elsewhere, such as prepackaged salads. What else is on his list to avoid? Ready-to-eat cheese, ice cream, and certain vegetables that have a history of contamination, like leafy greens and sprouts.

Who Should Avoid Certain Foods?

There are certain groups of people that are at higher risk for food-borne illness — pregnant women, children, older adults, and individuals with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients. In general, these groups should most certainly take caution with certain foods and be aware of the dangers if it's known that the FDA does not have the manpower to perform inspections.

What Foods to Avoid?

If the government shuts down and FDA inspections do not occur or do not happen at the same rate as before, there are some high risk foods that should be consumed with caution. These foods have the greatest risk of contamination.

Seafood

If inspections of seafood do not occur, it is unwise to eat raw seafood. Seafood should be treated as raw meat and caution should be taken in cross contamination with raw foods. Always use a different cutting board or knife when cooking with raw seafood and cook seafood to a safe internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, if your seafood has a sour or fishy odor, the FDA recommends that you do not eat it.

Soft Cheese

Some soft cheese is made from unpasteurized milk and therefore, should not be consumed if you are worried about food-borne illness. The FDA puts soft unpasteurized cheese, such as brie, camembert, and queso fresco at a high risk for bacterial contamination, most notably Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, and Campylobacter. Some soft cheeses can be made with pasteurized milk, so be mindful of reading labels.

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

Unfortunately, fresh produce is at high risk for contamination with bacteria such as E.Coli, Salmonella, L. monocytogenes, and norovirus, according to research published in Foods. Fresh produce is often contaminated by improper handling and unsafe storage practices. If the FDA is still posting recalls during a shutdown, pay close attention to those that may affect fresh produce and throw out any you may have on hand.

It's not realistic to avoid all fresh produce during an unspecified amount of time, so when buying produce meant for eating fresh, wash thoroughly before consuming, this includes fruits with skins, such as oranges, melons, and mangos. Wash the fruit or vegetables first, even if you intend on peeling them. This will minimize the transfer of bacteria.

Prepared Salad

Prepared salads and cut fresh fruits and vegetables have a higher contamination risk at any time. If purchasing bagged salad, it is a good idea to give it a rinse again before serving. Prepared salads run a double risk of contamination because they must be processed after being picked. It is best to buy produce in the most unprocessed state possible.

How to Avoid Getting Sick?

Food safety should be a common practice, but there's no harm in having heightened awareness during times when inspections may impact the food supply. If concerned about the safety of your meat, always cook meat thoroughly and use a thermometer to ensure your food is reaching a temperature high enough to kill bacteria. The USDA has set cooking temps for the following:

  • All meats and seafood with a 3 minute rest period: 145 degrees Fahrenheit
  • All ground meats: 160 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Egg dishes: 160 degrees Fahrenheit
  • All poultry: 165 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Hot dogs and lunch meats: 165 degrees Fahrenheit

Always wash your hands before and after handling high risk foods, such as seafood and fresh produce. Wash fruits and vegetables before eating, even if you are planning on taking the peel off. Use separate cutting boards and knives for foods that are at high risk for contamination, such as produce, and those that are not, such as bread. In general, follow good food safety rules.

Know that food-borne outbreaks are rare, but be cautious if there is an interruption in routine inspections by our governing agencies. Check the FDA's website for recalls and stay abreast of news concerning the food supply.

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