The Government Shutdown Is Affecting FDA Food Inspections-but Don't Panic

Daniel Fowler
January 14, 2019

Although the partial government shutdown that began on December 22 has caused the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to suspend routine food safety inspections of seafood, fruits, vegetables and other foods, due to a lapse in federal funding, FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb sought to reassure stakeholders and consumers that the agency was operating to the best of its abilities.

The almost 3-week-old shutdown has idled about 800,000 workers at roughly a quarter of USA government agencies and left some of the FDA's inspectors working without pay.

Gottlieb said FDA inspections would have ramped up this week for the first time since the holidays, so the lapse in inspections of high-risk foods will not be significant if they resume soon.

The FDA conducts about 8,400 domestic inspections a year, or an average of 160 a week, Gottlieb said. The directives force the FDA to cease routine inspections, while those employees tasked with jobs deemed critical to human safety would continue to work, albeit without pay. Inspections of what the FDA classifies as low risk foods-things like packaged crackers and cookies-will be stopped, however. Months before the most recent scare, E. coli found in romaine lettuce killed five people and hospitalized hundreds.

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Hundreds of FDA inspectors have been furloughed due to the shutdown. She worries about the effects of a longer-term absence of routine FDA inspection. The F.D.A. oversees about 80 percent of the nation's food supply, as well as most overseas imports.

Further, as Gottlieb revealed on Twitter, the agency was "standing up high-risk inspections". The report noted that the agency inspected about 19 percent of all food facilities in 2015. Unpasteurized juices, soft cheese, and raw fish have always carried a relatively higher risk, for example, but even in normal times, that still amounts to a low chance of getting sick. "We're taking whatever steps we can to support our colleagues as they fulfill our commitments to the American people under challenging circumstances". "I don't think it's a major concern".

Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, tells Live Science's Rettner that the food Americans are eating is likely as safe as it was before the shutdown.

"T$3 he infrastructure and support to the food industry", Chapman says, "could start to impact the safety of the food we are eating".

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