October 12, 2013 12:00 pm -

cpsc-logoWhen heads of federal agencies use the words “We can’t protect people,” you start to realize that the shutdown of the federal government is a clear and present danger to American citizens:

Among the federal agencies hit hardest by the government shutdown is the Consumer Product Safety Commission — an office no one pays much attention to until their kid’s toy slices open her hand or their surge protector bursts into flames.

But the shutdown has left only 23 of the commission’s 540 staffers on the job. All of the CPSC field investigators and port inspectors have been furloughed, leaving only a skeleton crew to investigate safety concerns for all products on the market in the U.S. As a result, the commission can only investigate complaints it considers an “imminent threat” to human life.

“We can’t protect people,” Inez Tenenbaum, CPSC chairwoman, told The Huffington Post on Friday, noting that there is a “very high threshold” to what the agency considers an imminent threat. “Our legal staff has taken a very strict construction of what is an imminent threat,” she said.

The CPSC is not the only agency hobbled by the shutdown:

The Food and Drug Administration has been forced to suspend all routine food safety inspections for the duration of the government shutdown, FDA spokesman Steven Immergut confirmed to The Huffington Post on Friday afternoon. Until funding is restored, the FDA will be inspecting only those facilities that it has cause to believe “present an immediate threat to public health.”

While it has been clear for weeks that the FDA would not be sending its own employees on food safety inspections during a federal shutdown, agency officials had suggested that state officials would be conducting some inspections on the FDA’s behalf. FDA budget documents [pdf] show that state employees inspected 9,736 of the 21,169 facilities screened for food safety in fiscal year 2012, so it seemed reasonable to suppose that about half of the normal number of routine food safety inspections would continue during the shutdown.

But the FDA normally pays state agencies a contractually dictated fee for each inspection its employees conduct. (While the amount varies from state to state, the budget documents suggest that the average was about $1,300 in fiscal year 2012.) Funding for these state-contracted inspections was eliminated as part of the shutdown. A few states have leftover money from the FDA’s contract last year, though most do not.

As a result, 8,733 food safety inspections that the FDA had commissioned states to perform in fiscal year 2014, which began Oct. 1, are being delayed until funding resumes.

Eat hearty, citizens! Nothing to see hereā€¦

D.B. Hirsch
D.B. Hirsch is a political activist, news junkie, and retired ad copy writer and spin doctor. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.