Food inspections, assessment of the health effects of toxic chemicals and financial assistance for the grocery store – all are services provided by the federal government and are now collapsed by the partial closure of the government.
The US Food and Drug Administration, which inspects more than 80,000 food service establishments, has reduced inspections. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Register has suspended exposure assessments for health. Cash grants for the purchase of groceries, commonly known as food stamps, are funded until February – but beyond that, this is a question mark.
While the partial closure of the US government seems to begin its fourth week of funding, funding for programs such as this one looks more and more like reservoirs in a drought, as bureaucrats waste money to keep flowing faucets, but uncertainty reigns horizon.
Lawyers say this puts public health at risk, delays long-term risk planning, and harms vulnerable communities that rely on government programs.
"The federal government should not be held hostage by political negotiation," said Sarah Sorscher, Assistant Director of Regulatory Affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "And our food security should not be taken hostage."
The FDA is responsible for the safety of about 80% of the US food system. Inspectors looking for "rodents, excrement, unhygienic practices" in high-risk institutions were fired. A small number of them are expected to return to work in mid-January, but this leaves a large part of the food system at risk, Sorscher said.
"The longer the shutdown lasts, the greater the chance that this disruption will impact consumers," said Sorscher. "It could mean having more dirt in our food, and it could mean a foodborne illness."
She added, "You should not have to ask yourself if your food is healthy or not, it should be."
At the same time, lawyers said the closure had already damaged communities that depended on subsidies and other food aid, not to mention federal employees working without pay to administer them.
"Families may not understand that Wic is open to business. Retail grocers may not understand that Wic is open to business, "said Douglas A Greenway, President and CEO of the National Wic Association, on the Women, Infants, Children's Food Subsidy Program (WIC) . WIC programs feed more than half of all infants born in the United States.
"There are two examples of Wic retailers who posted signs saying that because of the government shutdown they were not accepting Wic instruments," Greenway said. Retailers have been corrected, said Greenway, but they show that the closure "causes real damage to the program and real damage to the families served by the program."
About one-quarter of US government employees are on leave and an estimated 800,000 people work without pay. Most entrepreneurs will not receive a salary in return. The certainty that programs such as food stamps would remain funded only came in the third week of the closure. Schools that provide free and discounted meals to children living in poverty operate with grants that may run out before the end of the school year.
Trump precipitated a government shutdown on December 21, 2018, after Congress, then controlled by the Republicans, failed to pass a government spending bill. The impasse has dragged on since, while congressional Democrats have proposed passing a spending bill, but have refused to provide the $ 5.7 billion needed to build the wall. Recent attempts to negotiate offer little hope of ending the closure.
Although most public health services remain open – including those who monitor influenza, run public health insurance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and inspect food at the border – those who are seen as " non-essentials "stopped.
Preventive health clinics and pantries run by the Indian Health Service are closed and only services that meet the "immediate needs of patients, medical staff and medical facilities" continue.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry works with stripped staff and can not provide exposure assessment or technical assistance to local and state partners. Their ability to provide safe drinking water is limited.
Many people on leave at US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "are doing long-term research that is important to public health," said Sorscher. "This could affect our ability to plan for the future."
The National Science Foundation, which has already awarded almost $ 100 million in grants in mid-January, has completely stopped paying and applying.
"The science funded by the federal government supports the economy, it's a creator of jobs," said Benjamin Corb, spokesman for the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. "If you want to talk about US competitiveness, it's not a good idea to add unnecessary pressure to the system that makes America a world leader in scientific innovation."