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Government Shutdown Puts Consumers at Risk

As the battle over The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the debt ceiling stalls in congress, furloughs of more than 800,000 government employees continue and some public safety services have literally gone “offline.”

Salmonella outbreak

In an effort to research the massive salmonella outbreak that has sickened nearly 300 people, we turned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website for answers, only to find it was down. “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available,” read a message on usda.gov. “After funding has been restored, please allow some time for this website to become available again.”

Fortunately, the website of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a public health agency within the USDA, is operational. While no poultry has been recalled, the agency issued a public health alert stating that raw products from Foster Farms in California may contain strains of Salmonella Heidelberg and should be cooked thoroughly before eating.

In a statement issued this week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said seven strains of Salmonella are responsible for the illnesses, including some that may be highly resistant to treatment by antibiotics. The consumer watchdog group claims the outbreak is sending 42 percent of victims to the hospital—a rate twice what is normally seen in Salmonella outbreaks.

“The number of people we know to be ill is just the tip of the iceberg,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “This outbreak shows that [it] is a terrible time for government public health officials to be locked out of their offices and labs, and for government Web sites to go dark.”

Politico.com reports, “After the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a public health alert Monday about a multistate Salmonella outbreak, it took the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about 24 hours to create an outbreak page on its website with detailed information for consumers and the media.”

The shutdown’s toll on government websites is varied. Some sites are down completely, while others remain functional – albeit with a warning that no updates will be made during the shutdown.

No automobile recalls

Due to furloughs, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has no one investigating new consumer complaints. That means there will be no automobile recalls during the shutdown and all current investigations have stopped. A banner on the safercar.gov reporting page tells consumers, “Due to a lapse of Federal Government funding, NHTSA is unable [to] process safety defect complaints after close of business September 30, 2013. Consumers can continue to file complaints via this website, but they will not be evaluated by NHTSA staff until funding and services are restored.”

Although car manufacturers can still voluntarily recall vehicles, that is a rare occurrence. Major recalls usually require intense negotiations.

The NHTSA handles nearly 700 recalls each year, affecting 20 million vehicles according Joan Claybrook, former head of the agency.

“Safety is being undermined,” Claybrook said. “If unsafe cars are on the highway, if the agency isn’t operating so it can’t put out consumer alerts, if it can’t finish up a recall notice that it wants to publish or negotiate with an auto company they want to do a recall, that puts the public at risk.”

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