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Critical Services Ensuring Food Safety Take A Hit During Shutdown


It is Day 35 of the partial government shutdown, and critical services that make sure our food is safe have taken a hit. This month, the Food and Drug Administration scaled back many regular inspections of things like seafood, fruits and vegetables. Other inspectors, though, like the ones who inspect meat and poultry, are still on the job. Here's Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.


SONNY PERDUE: I know many of you have been wondering during this shutdown, what about my food? Is it safe? I'm happy to tell all Americans today, because of our hardworking food-safety inspectors across America, your chicken, your pork, your beef - all that protein that they're inspecting is safe. They've been on the job. They're on the job. They're staying on the job. And to them, I want to say thank you.

MICHAEL GAFRANCESCO: We have to go to work to protect the food chain - food supply for the Americans. And that's what we do. And we're not getting paid.

MARTIN: That second voice there - Michael Gafrancesco. He's a longtime federal food inspector in upstate New York. He's been out on approved sick leave since mid-December with a heart condition, but he's not getting paid, either. Gafrancesco is also a local union leader with the American Federation of Government Employees. And when we spoke, he told me food inspection workers in the area are struggling.

GAFRANCESCO: And matter of fact, I've got two people - a husband-and-wife team - that work, and they couldn't even afford to drive their vehicles to go to work. They couldn't afford to heat their home with wood. They have to go to food banks. I've got people that are suffering like that. All we want to do is get paid for the work that we do.

MARTIN: Can you describe, just so we understand the effect of you not being at your job and your colleagues, what do you do?

GAFRANCESCO: What we do is we inspect all federal meat and poultry food-processing plants and slaughter plants, and we insure and protect the public's food supply. We start from the slaughterhouse. We examine the animals and antemortem. We do post-mortem once it - which is like a autopsy on an animal, to determine if the animal has any diseases. And we ensure that they're slaughtered properly, boned, boxed and shipped to wherever they ship it to.

MARTIN: How many plants do you inspect a day personally when you're on the job?

GAFRANCESCO: I personally inspect five plants a day.

MARTIN: Wow. So while you are on sick leave and not getting paid...


MARTIN: ...Who's checking on those facilities?

GAFRANCESCO: We have another inspector in the Syracuse area who's doubled up.

MARTIN: And is that person not furloughed?

GAFRANCESCO: We are what they consider essential. We have to go to work. We're forced to go to work.

MARTIN: Your colleague now has taken a double shift, basically.

GAFRANCESCO: Oh, yeah. He's really killing himself.

MARTIN: You talk about people taking double shifts just so they can make sure the work is done because it is so important. Are you concerned that things are getting missed? Is there any kind of public health threat?

GAFRANCESCO: Well, you can only spend so much time in a plant. Like I said, if the other inspector that's covering for me has got nine plants - let's see. You've got all that driving time. There's lots of miles between certain places. How much time - quality time can you spend at a place to do inspection - real inspection? It's not really there, in my opinion.

But we've been going through this for a long time. We've been going through hiring problems. We were just getting caught up. We were getting close to filling all our vacancies. Well, I've been doubled up almost a year and a half to two years.

MARTIN: What are your long-term plans? We're hearing some reporting that the White House is making its own plans for the shutdown to last weeks or even months.

GAFRANCESCO: I'm going to my family, and I'm trying to get financial help from my family - and that I've got a daughter that lives with us and her granddaughter here, and she just took in a child to babysit to help with money. My wife was working, and she can't work because she's taking care of her mother. So there's no income there right now.

It's very devastating. And I don't know how long it's going to go. That's why I'm praying that the politicians get together and end this and pay us federal employees our wages. We need to support our families.

MARTIN: Michael Gafrancesco, a federal food inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Michael, thank you so much for your time.

GAFRANCESCO: You're very welcome, and it was nice speaking to you.

MARTIN: We reached out to the USDA. They let us know essential personnel continue to work during the government shutdown. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.