Here’s How the FDA Affects Almost Everything You Eat

Photo: Getty Images/Mike Harrington
The partial government shutdown is going on its third week. That means 800,000 federal employees are not working—and aren't likely to receive their next paycheck. (Essential employees, like prison guards and TSA staffers at airports, are still on the clock though similarly unpaid.) Among those staying home are roughly 41 percent of the Food and Drug Administration's 17,000 employees.

“We are doing what we can to mitigate any risk to consumers through the shutdown,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told The Washington Post, which notes that the agency has suspended routine inspections nationwide.

In a nutshell, the FDA is responsible for ensuring that all our food and prescription drugs are safe for consumption. At a granular level, it seems like a pretty heady job—and a lot of paperwork. Below, the biggest ways the FDA plays a direct role in our lives (without us even realizing it), including how a government shutdown affects you and me:

1. Creates the guidelines food, drink, and drug companies must follow in order for their products to be distributed. It seems like every day a new healthy food or drink brand enters the market, and while that may be true, it takes a lot of work for companies to get their products to the public. The FDA not only has strict guidelines every company must meet, it also inspects the facilities first-hand to make sure they're up to snuff. If FDA-approved, your favorite kombucha isn't made in someone's basement with eight cats running around. The government shutdown is bad news for any brands trying to enter the marketplace right now: Chances are the paperwork will sit in someone's inbox until it's over. And as for that inspection? Good luck getting that scheduled anytime soon.

2. Protects consumers from foodborne illnesses. The facility check-ins don't stop once the goods are in the American marketplace; inspectors visit facilities—sometimes by surprise—to verify that everything is up to code. While food safety is greatly important, the shutdown doesn't mean we're all doomed to get E.coli and salmonella. With so many food facilities in the United States, the FDA only has the manpower to inspect 24 percent of them in a given year. Since it's not like companies receive regular visits, the FDA relies largely on guidelines already in place.

3. Approves new drugs. You know all the headlines about "promising clinical trials" and new drug tests medical researchers are always conducting? Without the FDA, it might as well be considered an expensive hobby. As you can imagine, a lot of testing needs to be done to bring a prescription drug to market, but there would be no progression in the medical marketplace if the work stopped there. The FDA approves all new drugs, deciding which ones are safe. While scientists and medical researchers are employed privately—and therefore, able to work during the partial shutdown—don't expect anything to get approved right now.

4. Pulls dangerous supplements from the shelf. While supplements don't have to be approved by the FDA, if medical research proves an ingredient to be dangerous, the government steps in. They're watching you, sketchy weight loss drugs! Well, at least they will be once the shutdown is over and they're back in the office...

5. Makes sure advertisements aren't tricking you. The FDA doesn't just keep tabs on sketchy supplements—it has a close eye on advertisements, too. If a food, drink, or drug ad is untruthful in any way, you can bet the FDA will have something to say about it. But alas, this is halted for now, until the government is back in business.

While it's a little scary to think that the FDA can't carry out many of its essential functions right now, just keep in mind that you are your own health advocate and there's a lot you can do to keep yourself safe: Do your label reading, cook and wash your food correctly, and be a conscious consumer. The government can't take away your savvy skills!

Other useful information for staying healthy: know when it's time to throw out your leftovers and which food storage containers are safe.

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