Your dog and his government: The shutdown

in Contributors/Pets by

By Tracie Korol

As our elected officials continue to bicker and whine about the continued funding of the federal government, Washington temporarily mothballed its “non-essential” programs and services. In a shutdown, “non-essential” federal workers are furloughed, while some “essential” operations continue. How does this government shutdown affects our animals? Short answer: by suspending critical animal welfare functions. Here’s a longer answer and some of the effects that we can expect for our Best Friends:

Under the Animal Welfare Act, USDA is charged with ensuring that minimum standards of care and treatment are provided by regulated agencies (approximately 12,000 sites currently), including research facilities, commercial dog breeders and dealers, and exhibitors of exotic animals. Without federal government funding, USDA will not be able to inspect these facilities to ensure humane care or provide enforcement against violators, meaning puppy mills, research labs and roadside zoos. It is entirely possible that all could cut corners and operate recklessly while no one is watching.

Earlier in this drama, the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service indicated that “facility inspections and complaint investigations related to the Animal Welfare Act” would not continue during a funding lapse. Additionally, USDA’s website is dark due to the shutdown, which means the public no longer has access to the animal care database to review AWA inspection reports and violations.

From The Food and Drug Administration: “FDA will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities,” reads a Health and Human Services memo detailing a contingency plan for the government funding stoppage. This means a delay on important rules to ensure the safety of pet food, in the wake of a number of recalls. “FDA will also have to cease safety activities such as routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports, notification programs, and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making.”  Keep in mind that primary ingredients for pet foods begin with what’s left over from that for human consumption.

To put the implications in context, consider that the FDA typically inspects about 19,000 domestic food facilities every year — or 50 per day. Not only are FDA inspectors no longer out in the field, but laboratory research is also to be put on hold, and the agency will not be publishing any guidance documents. The last point isn’t as innocuous as it sounds; the FDA has issued more 500 warning letters to food and drug providers so far this year. The letters make up a frightening list of violations including drug-tainted veal and infected cattle material used in pet food as well as recall alerts.

A bigger problem is whether the FDA can adequately respond to an emergency, for instance, a massive Salmonella outbreak in kibble. “Those inspections help to prevent problems with food safety, fix them before contaminated foods get into the market. These agencies are working at very minimal capacity. They say they will retain some capacity for emergencies, but if you don’t have CDC in place and you’re operating on a skeleton crew anyway, I don’t have confidence that they have the capacity to recognize and emergency and respond to it,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal, the food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group in Washington.

Another huge area of concern is food imports which are normally monitored by FDA officials. No imports are being inspected for safety right now. That means all those mysterious Chinese kibble-filler ingredients and chemical treats that historically have wreaked havoc in the US pet community.

On a good day, the agency is critically under-funded. The FDA lost $209 million as part of the $85 billion in automatic budget cuts that took place March 1 of this year, forcing 2,100 fewer inspections from 2012. The shutdown, DeWaal says, just exacerbates the problem.

If you are a kibble-only household, be aware that in a few months there may well be a rash of recalls due to the various contaminants that are currently being overlooked. Also be aware that the USDA and FDA that list current kibble recalls daily have dark websites. What to do? This might be the time to re-consider what your Best Friend is eating. Source locally and wash/cook it well is a good place to start.