Portland Press Herald

Food safety inspections at Maine’s seafood processing plants are delayed by a few weeks because of the federal government shutdown, state officials said. They also said if the shuttering persists, it could cause more severe problems with the annual seafood inspection program.

“It has so far had a minimal impact on us. If it went on for too long, we would have to analyze what we could do,” said Ron Dyer, director of quality assurance and regulations at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

As part of the sweeping Food and Drug Administration food safety program, the FDA contracts with Maine, and the state performs 32 unannounced safety inspections per year at Maine’s approximately 40 seafood processing plants. Maine receives about $800 for each inspection, or nearly $26,000 per year from the FDA. The U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects meat, poultry and egg products, while the FDA inspects seafood and all other food products.

The FDA works with Maine to schedule eight inspections per quarter. Because 2013’s fourth quarter started Oct. 1, the same day that the federal government shutdown began, the fall and winter schedule has not been set.

Dyer said he’s not sure if the state would be permitted to temporarily pick up the cost of the program if the shutdown continues. He said once the federal government reopens, the seafood inspections could begin late this year or simply be shifted to 2014.

Dyer said the state may do abbreviated inspections of the seafood processing plants in the interim.

, depending on how long the shutdown lasts.

While seafood inspections have been delayed a few weeks, meat and poultry inspections continue unabated, Dyer said, because they fall under the USDA program. Meat inspectors were considered essential employees under the shutdown and continued working, Dyer said.

Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate failed to agree to a deal by Tuesday evening, according to news reports, although speculation that a bipartisan Senate-led deal would break the impasse seemed to indicate the end of the partisan wrangling was near. If a deal is not brokered by Thursday, when the debt ceiling is reached, it could damage credibility in financial markets, raising doubt that the U.S. pays its bills, according to numerous news reports.

Among the myriad problems caused by the shutown are furloughs of employees related to food safety that could haunt the U.S. if allowed to continue, said Amanda Hitt, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Food Integrity Campaign, a nonprofit watchdog group.

Hitt said that while the meat, poultry and egg inspectors so far have been considered essential employees, furloughing back-office USDA employees eventually could snarl operations, such as the ability to deliver labels, including recall labels for contaminated food.

Hitt said so far the food supply is not being jeopardized to a substantial degree, but if the shutdown continues, the U.S. could be heading into dangerous territory.

“We do not want to roll the dice with the safety of the U.S. food supply,” Hitt said. “One little hiccup could lead to quite a disaster. You could have the possibility for massive illnesses.”

While the USDA retained its meat inspectors during the shutdown, the FDA furloughed 45 percent of its employees, some of whom are involved in food safety, according to government documents.

According to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services memo, “routine establishment” inspections of food industry facilities are suspended during the shutdown.

“The FDA will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities. FDA will also have to cease safety activities such as routine establishment inspections, some compliance and enforcement activities, monitoring of imports, notification programs (e.g., food contact substances, infant formula), and the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making,” according to the memo.

The memo noted, however, that nearly 700 FDA employees related to food safety inspections would remain on the job during the shutdown.

In one example of how inspections can affect the seafood industry, the FDA temporarily shut down Portland Shellfish Co. in 2011 and 2012 for safety violations, and required the company to improve sanitary conditions.