While the 2013 government shutdown was in effect, Americans grew concerned about the short and long term implications on our society and its financial solvency. We know that the shutdown had serious and vast consequences on Americans who are dependent on the government for employment, basic necessities, and even recreational activities (closure of the National Mall and U.S. National Parks), but I’m curious about how the shutdown affected the health of both people and pets.
One of the vital roles our government has in keeping our food safe and pharmaceuticals regulated involves the oversight of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The shutdown caused the FDA to discontinue performing a variety of activities. Those that the FDA still continued to perform are listed on their Medical Product Activities During the Federal Government Shutdown webpage.
As a clinical practice veterinarian, I’m always primarily concerned about what's safest for my canine and feline patients as pertains to the food and water they consume and the nutraceuticals and drugs with which they are medicated. The lack of FDA oversight over the inspection of human and pet foods during the government shutdown has me quite concerned (see FDA Confirms All Routine Food Safety Inspections Suspended During The Shutdown).
In order to best understand the potential health implications the shutdown has for our pets, I consulted with two of the most important industry advocates for pet safety: Susan Thixton from The Truth About Pet Food, and Mollie Morrissette from Poisoned Pets. The following is my interview with these well-worth-following authorities.
Patrick Mahaney (PM): What are your greatest concerns for pet health that are currently or will soon be emerging as a result of a government shutdown?
Susan Thixton (ST): Pet food has always been at the bottom of FDA's “to do” list. With the massive responsibility the FDA has to begin with, and a budget they struggle to manage with, the government shutdown makes a bad situation even worse. Pet food adverse event reports are still being filed with the FDA, potentially hundreds on a daily basis, but there is no one there to monitor those complaints. It's frightening to consider what could happen.
PM: How is the lack of FDA involvement in food safety potentially affecting pet health?
ST: The FDA has never been overly involved in pet food, so unless something serious is happening/happens (such as an aflatoxin contamination or other toxin in batches of pet food), I don't think the shutdown is much different for pet food consumers. However, with reports of mold diseases in crops this summer (even in states that typically don't suffer with mold diseases in crops), there is an ongoing risk that mold contaminated ingredients will enter pet foods. Little to no FDA oversight, combined with moldy pet food ingredients, could be a very serious concern.
PM: How is the lack of FDA involvement in veterinary prescription drug safety potentially affecting pet health?
Mollie Morrissette (MM): I am more concerned with the pharmaceutical industry’s ties to the FDA. A recent Washington Post article, Pharmaceutical firms paid to attend meetings of panel that advises FDA, illustrated how enmeshed they are. The FDA and “Big Pharma” hold regular closed door meetings where industry consultants and university academics are paid $25,000 to $50,000 for attending these meetings as advisors to the FDA, that eventually form the basis of policy. Unless the FDA divorce themselves from industry influence (which I doubt will ever happen), I do not see how any policy that is based on flawed science can ever be considered with the patient's best interest at heart.
PM: What can pet owners do to ensure that their companion canines and felines stay safe and healthy despite lack of current government oversight over their pet foods and veterinary prescription drugs (e.g., stockpiling meds, home prepared diets, etc.)?
ST: This would be the same advice regardless of FDA shutdown — feed your pet a food that is made with USDA inspected and approved ingredients. Anything less could be very inferior and risky. Also, make certain to ask your pet food manufacturer the country of origin of all of the ingredients, including all supplements. Many pet food supplements are sourced from China — which personally I consider a risk.
MM: This sounds pretty radical, but [the only way for owners] to make sure their food is safe is to make their own. Buy only Certified Organic ingredients from local farms. Visit farmers markets; many farmers sell their meat, poultry and eggs fresh off the farm. You can visit the actual farms, too. Some even make pet food. If I can find all these fabulous products in my rural town in Northern California, I suspect that the same can be found in most areas of America today. I support my local farmers and my cats love me for it!
PM: If the government shuts down again and the FDA loses fund to do its job, what do you perceive are the greatest consequences that can affect animal health?
ST: I'm going to get a little political here. While I don't read each and every argument presented between the Democrats and Republicans, it seems the biggest obstacle is the healthcare issue. To me, if the FDA isn't funded properly and forced (by Congress) to clean up food, get rid of the antibiotics and GMOs, feed livestock animals wholesome foods, etc., then even an individual covered by a dozen health care plans won’t necessarily be benefitted (prevented from having or being cured from disease, etc.).
We must have clean food. For years and years the FDA has sat back and allowed industry to tell them what is safe. Livestock animals, which become human food, are forced to live in horrid conditions and to eat waste (for example, chicken feces are fed to cattle). This has to stop. Healthcare won't help us (no pill nor doctor visit) when our food is contaminated. To answer your question, if the FDA isn't funded properly and forced to clean up food, then animals and humans are going to suffer serious consequences.
MM: I believe the greatest concern would be to the health and welfare of animals in agriculture; in particular when they are ill and brought to slaughter. Will they be humanly handled? Will slaughtering plants get sloppy (or sloppier)?
We don't know for certain, but we can probably assume that without USDA inspectors on the job, I would “bet the farm” that conditions at the slaughter plants will get a whole lot uglier. The meat industry is already fraught with problems and this will most likely make it only worse. So, in that regard, I would be extra, extra careful with handling raw meat.
Federal inspectors rarely, if ever, visit rendering plants or, for that matter, pet food manufacturers, so I doubt much will change in that department (I don't recall the statistics offhand, but it's pretty dismal). We already know that the rendering industry is a freak show that has been allowed to function with impunity for nearly a century, and as that is where most meat destined to be pet food is sourced from, the consumer will not notice any change in that regard. It's pretty hard to make something so putrid worse than it already is. And as Susan will tell you, compliance policies allow for equally putrid ingredients in pet food.
Thank you, Susan and Mollie, for your contributions to this very important human and animal health issue.
On a lighter note, I am very enthused to see the National Zoo's Giant Panda Cam is back in action now that the government shutdown has ended. Seeing the cuddly black and white faces of baby pandas is a simple pleasure readily enjoyed by those of us needing a refreshing mental lift from the stressors of daily life.
Dr. Patrick Mahaney