As we close out the third week of the partial government shutdown, the Food and Drug Administration has suspended all routine inspections of domestic food processing facilities, the Washington Post reports.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said he is working on a plan to call back furloughed inspectors as early as next week to help inspect high-risk facilities that have a history of problems and that handle items such as seafood, soft cheese and vegetables. Those inspections have been on hold since the shutdown.
“There’s no question of whether it’s business as usual at FDA,” Gottlieb told NBC News. “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.”
About 60% of the FDA’s workforce of 17,400 is considered essential and is working without pay through the shutdown. (Who else would warn us about candy possibly contaminated with Hepatitis A?)
Foodborne illnesses in the U.S. sicken 48 million people each year, hospitalize 128,000 and kill 3,000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
The FDA typically conducts about 160 routine food inspections a week, with about a third involving high-risk processing facilities, Gottlieb said. Inspectors look for unsanitary conditions, insect infestations, and salmonella and E. coli contamination — like the recent romaine lettuce ordeal, which was just declared officially over yesterday. The FDA tracked down the romaine lettuce that caused 25 hospitalizations to a farm in Santa Barbara County, Calif.
Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich pointed out on Twitter that while the FDA does about 50 inspections of high-risk facilities every week, there are more than 20,000 such facilities in the U.S., and the FDA is required to inspect them only once every three years.
While domestic facility inspections are on pause, the FDA continues to inspect foreign manufacturers, imports and domestic producers currently involved in recalls or outbreaks. The inspectors at the Department of Agriculture who oversee meat, poultry and egg products are continuing to work without pay.
About 60% of the FDA’s activities are funded by user fees, including drug approvals, inspections of drug-producing facilities, and regulating tobacco products. About 40% of the agency’s activities, including most of its food-related work, are paid for by appropriations from Congress.
Endpoints News reports the FDA can’t accept any new user fees during the shutdown, and it has about one month of funds for new drug reviews left.