SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration are inspecting less food during this government shutdown, leading to questions about whether our food is still safe. NPR's Dan Charles is here to say don't worry. When it comes to food safety, the shutdown hasn't changed things much.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Let's start with the big picture. There are thousands of slaughterhouses and meat processors in the country, and they cannot legally operate without a USDA inspector on site. Those inspectors are still working through the shutdown. And then there are tens of thousands of other food plants that handle everything else, from cauliflower to cookies. The FDA oversees those plants. And David Acheson, a former FDA official, now a private food safety consultant, says there's a whole different philosophy for regulating them.
DAVID ACHESON: The expectation is that the industry will produce safe food, period. And FDA's job was to periodically check that that was indeed happening.
CHARLES: Periodically usually means only once every few years. So 99 percent of these plants were not going to get inspected this month, anyway. The shutdown did not change things much. Meanwhile, a lot of them still are being inspected as part of a whole parallel food safety system, a private one run by people like Craig Wilson, the head of food safety at Costco.
CRAIG WILSON: We spend money with both suppliers. And if they can't meet our specifications from a food safety or quality perspective, guess what happens?
WILSON: Yeah, exactly. What. We won't buy from them.
CHARLES: And he says we actually demand some things the FDA doesn't, like more testing for harmful bacteria. There are several of these private food safety certifications. Food companies need them to sell to big food retailers, like Walmart or Kroger or Costco. And they have to get inspected and recertified every year. This private system has failed to catch problems at some companies. Critics say since food companies pay for the certifications, the certifiers don't have much of an incentive to look too hard for problems. Also, there are plenty of food companies that the private inspectors never see. Here's David Acheson, the food safety consultant.
ACHESON: Keep in mind that there's lots and lots and lots of relatively small plants that are making food that are not selling into the major chains.
CHARLES: So no big food retailers telling them to spend the money to get a safety certification. Acheson says, for those companies and also to keep the big food companies honest, it is important for the FDA to stop by every so often.
ACHESON: Nobody in their right mind would be complacent about an FDA inspection because they can be very tough. And they can have fairly significant negative consequences on your business.
CHARLES: Every so often, those routine inspections do find things - evidence of rats in warehouses, bad temperature gauges. Just knowing the FDA could show up unannounced is a good thing, Acheson says, even if the visits are rare. Dan Charles, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.