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What the Government Shutdown Means for Your Food

Here we are, yet again: another month, another spending bill down the drain.

Today the federal government has officially shut down -- well, "nonessential" programs, at least -- which will affect a wide range of services, from the National Institutes of Health to the National Park Service to the Department of Housing and Urban Development to even the United States Department of Agriculture; currently its website is down due to the lapse in funding.

While Congress' inability to work together to, you know, perform necessary government functions will negatively impact a wide range of issues, the effects on the USDA will impact the government's influence on food.

The USDA will still be able to keep up with basic safety operations and hunger programs. Meat -- including "USDA Choice" and "USDA Select" beef grading -- dairy, eggs, and food imports will be inspected by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, which is keeping 87 percent of its employees. However, the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyard Administration, which is continuing with all inspections paid for by user fees, asserts that it could potentially fail in its ability to investigate violators.

Food stamps and school lunches are safe for the meantime as Congress' Recovery Act pays for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) for another year. The USDA expects the federal school lunch program should be fine until the end of this month.

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children -- otherwise known as WIC -- is done in terms of the federal government; however, because it is administered by states, it could possibly survive for a short period of time as long as state funds are available. The $6 billion program helps poor pregnant women and new mothers purchase healthy food.

USDA databases, which keep reports that are used by the market to set the price of commodities, such as soy, wheat, corn, and whatever else in the farming world, are also shut down. Without a report for this month, traders and farmers are selling products without knowing the actual value -- because that totally makes sense.

With the shutdown goes the potential of a new farm bill, although passing anything in this climate is rather unlikely regardless. The current farm bill expired last night, and it doesn't look like we'll be getting a new one anytime soon.

Last but not least, this whole debacle has switched off USDA communication with consumers and the media -- we had to research through a number of other sites, as the USDA website is not operating. Obviously, that's a pain in the ass, but it could be dangerous; say the agency somehow is able to find an outbreak of E. coli or listeria or some other contaminant: You're not going to know about it, because the USDA will not be putting out news releases or any other publications.

Keep up the good work, Congress; you're doing a fantastic job!

Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.

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Sara Ventiera

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