The country is in the midst of a federal government shutdown that has led to most food safety inspections to be stopped. However, the Food and Drug Administration is planning to resume operations to at least some. For this to happen, the agency will have to force furloughed workers to come back without pay.
According to the FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb his goal is to pinpoint the most critical inspections while making it a point that workers are treated fairly. “There’s no question of whether it’s business as usual at FDA,” Gottlieb told NBC News. He also added, “It’s not business as usual, and we are not doing all the things we would do under normal circumstances. There are important things we are not doing.”
Meaning the FDA inspectors are not looking for salmonella in breakfast cereal, E. coli in romaine lettuce, or listeria in ice cream. They advise these companies to conduct their check, while the FDA is still announcing recalls.
The FDA will still be inspecting ethnic cuisine as usual because of the high risk involved. Despite there efforts, the FDA has stopped almost completely checking domestic food production facilities, which could lead public health threats that are going undetected. In an interview, late Tuesday Gottlieb said, “We’re doing everything we can to try to maintain our basic consumer protection role. That’s our focus.”
Some areas within the FDA are funded by user fees and are not significantly affected by the shutdown. However, most of the budget funded by Congress is on hold. Around 7,000 of the agency’s 17,000 employees, 41 percent of the staff have been furloughed. Gottlieb is working to call some of them back to re-start inspections of high-risk domestic facilities. “For me to do that, it would require calling back about 10 percent of our inspection force,” Gottlieb said, estimating the agency employs about 5,000 inspectors, conducting about 160 inspections per month. “It’s something we currently aren’t doing. I think it’s the right thing to do for public safety.”
The most critical inspections would be at locations that have had already been flagged for safety issues, such as factories with listeria or salmonella contamination or other health problems, then follows foods that are prone to disease.
“For example, cheese might be a high-risk food,” Gottlieb explained. “Low-risk would be a bakery, so a facility that manufactures crackers – that would be low-risk.”
“We urge the FDA to publish more information about the impact of the shutdown on the safety of the food supply, including more about which types of inspection, import screening, and enforcement activities are considered critical and which have been suspended,” CSPI’s Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs Sarah Sorscher said in a statement which The Center for Science in the Public expressed public concerns.
The agency is an essential part of the country’s food supply, although meat and egg products are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspections Service; however, their inspectors are still on the job, according to the USDA, but are working without pay. It’s because the law, as written by Congress, requires continuous USDA inspection.
– “This shutdown could have long-term impacts on our workforce.”