Government shutdown leads to reduced food inspections from FDA

The partial government shutdown is having potentially harmful consequences that could stem from the food Americans eat, as the Food and Drug Administration has reduced inspections of the country’s food supply.

The Washington Post reported that according to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, all routine inspections at domestic food-processing facilities have been suspended. The FDA oversees 80 percent of the nation's food supply.

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“We are doing what we can to mitigate any risk to consumers through the shutdown,” Gottlieb said, adding that he is working to bring back inspectors as early as next week to inspect high-risk facilities, such as soft cheese and seafood processing plants. Facilities with a history of problems would also be inspected by employees that can be brought back.

Credit: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Credit: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Gottlieb spoke more about the impact of the shutdown on food safety Wednesday afternoon in a Twitter thread.

"We're taking steps to expand the scope of food safety surveillance inspections we're doing during the shutdown to make sure we continue inspecting high risk food facilities," he said. "Thirty-one percent of our inventory of domestic inspections are considered high risk ... We're still doing ALL of our regular foreign food inspections. But, on the domestic side, in rough numbers we'd typically do about 160 domestic food inspections each week, and about 1/3 of those would be considered high risk.

"We assess risk based on an overall, cross-cutting risk profile. The primary factors contributing to a facility's risk profile include: the type of food, the manufacturing process, and the compliance history of the facility.
"Commodities deemed high risk include, but aren't limited to: modified atmosphere packaged products; acidified and low acid canned foods; seafood; custard filled bakery products; dairy products including soft, semi-soft, soft ripened cheese and cheese products, unpasteurized juices; sprouts ready-to-eat; fresh fruits and vegetables and processed fruits and vegetables; spices; shell eggs; sandwiches; prepared salads; infant formula; and medical foods."

Sarah Sorscher, the Center for Science in the Public Interest's deputy director of regulatory affairs, said in a statement Tuesday that the inspection halt "puts our food supply at risk."

“Regular inspections, which help stop food borne illness before people get sick, are vital. Work to finish rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act has also ground to a halt, impairing efforts to improve produce safety, recall communication, and outbreak tracing ...

FDA’s food center is probably more affected by this shutdown than any other part of FDA, due to the center’s very limited dependence upon user fees,” Sorscher said. “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.”

Related: What is a partial government shutdown? Departments affected by the shutdown

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food born illness sickens an estimated 48 million people a year in the U.S. About 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

NBC News reported meat and some egg products are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, and most of those inspectors are still on the job. Most inspections by that agency are paid for by industry user fees, but some are working with no pay.

“We don’t want the person inspecting our meat for disease and feces to be distracted by not being able to pay their bills. It is also very hard to get qualified people to work in a slaughterhouse, and many inspectors have advanced food safety or veterinary degrees and could get better-paying jobs elsewhere but choose to work for the government because of the sense of mission and stability,” Sorscher said.

Bloomberg reported a shutdown contingency plan published by the Department of Health and Human Services would impact medical product and animal drug inspections.

"FDA would be unable to support many routine regulatory and compliance activities," the plan said. "This includes some medical product, animal drug, and food related activities. FDA will also have to cease routine establishment inspections, cosmetics and nutrition work, and many ongoing research activities."