Despite the federal government shutdown, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to resume food-safety inspections at facilities that process easily contaminated products like fresh-cut produce, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Monday.
Initially, most food-safety inspections were put on hold, yet many inspectors have continued working without pay in order to maintain high-priority checks. Unpaid workers are currently overseeing investigations of foodborne illness outbreaks, hazardous recalls, import screenings and safety inspections of overseas food imports.
Inspections at facilities that oversee high-risk products, such as seafood and soft cheeses, are regarded as routine and were initially put on hold, which caused concerns among food-safety experts that the public could be put at risk by the shutdown. The shutdown has entered Day 25 and the FDA has begun to implement a long-term plan to reinstate inspections of high-risk products.
The FDA will re-start its inspections of food facilities Tuesday, using unpaid staff, Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said. https://t.co/8SHGXHou1T— NBC News (@NBCNews) January 14, 2019
Last week, Gottlieb said the FDA had put only a small number of routine food-safety inspections on hold. The agency conducts roughly 160 routine inspections each week – one-third of these are at high-risk facilities – yet inspections, in general, are not that frequent. The FDA is only required by law to inspect all high-risk food facilities every three years.
Foods categorized as high-risk by the FDA include seafood, soft cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables, spices, shell eggs, infant formula, and medical foods. Facilities can also be deemed high-risk if they have a history of food-safety issues. An estimated 20,000 food facilities in the US are considered high-risk.
Routine food-safety inspections of food facilities that are not regarded as high-risk, such as bakeries, will be halted during the shutdown, though meat and poultry food-safety inspections, which are overseen by the Agriculture Department, will continue as usual, even though workers will not be paid.
Gottlieb, who has been keeping his staff and the public updated on the developments, tweeted this week that inspections of high-risk imported produce had resumed in the Northeast. "We'll expand our footprint as the week progresses," Gottlieb tweeted. "Our teams are working."
The commissioner commended the dedication of food-safety inspectors who are working without compensation. "These men and women are the tip of the spear in our consumer protection mission," he said. "They're the very front line. And they're on the job. The entire nation owes them gratitude."
According to Food Safety News, undeclared allergens were the top cause of recalled pounds of food by the USDA in 2012 at 35.4 percent. That number increased to 41.2 percent by the end of 2017. In terms of bacterial contamination, Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria monocytogenes, were the most common pathogens found in food. About 28 percent of FDA food recalls were for bacterial contamination in 2012. By the end of 2017, that number had grown to 31.3 percent.