Shutdown Limits FDA Efforts to Protect Food Safety

Matt Smith

January 15, 2019

The federal government's partial shutdown is taking a bite out of the FDA's ability to ensure the safety of American food, forcing the agency to shift inspections toward products it considers high risk.

The nearly 3-week-old shutdown has idled about 800,000 workers at roughly a quarter of U.S. government agencies and left some of the FDA's inspectors working without pay. Until Congress passes the funding bills needed to reopen those agencies, the FDA will "focus our resources on areas of highest potential risk to consumers," Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said via Twitter.

Those high-risk areas include plants that produce both fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and seafood, Gottlieb said — about a third of the facilities that the FDA regularly inspects. A plant's manufacturing processes and regulatory record will also be taken into account when the FDA decides what to inspect, he said.

Gottlieb said yesterday that the FDA would resume routine inspections of riskier foods, such as cheese, other dairy products and produce, as early as Jan. 15. The FDA is bringing back 150 employees for those inspections.

"FDA's professional staff remain fully dedicated to our mission," Gottlieb said in a tweet. "We're taking whatever steps we can to support our colleagues as they fulfill our commitments to the American people under challenging circumstances."

About 40% of the FDA's staff has been furloughed during the shutdown, while others who work on "critical public health functions" are working without pay or reimbursement. That's raised alarms with watchdogs like the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, which said the shutdown "puts our food supply at risk." The CSPI urged the agency to provide more information about what functions are still being performed and which have been halted.

"While the FDA claims that it will continue to conduct 'for cause' inspections and pursue criminal and civil investigations related to 'imminent threats to human health or life,' the agency has posted no new warning letters since the shutdown began more than two weeks ago," the organization said in a written statement last week. "That raises concerns that enforcement activities effectively may have stopped."

But Craig Hedberg, PhD, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health, says the shutdown "shouldn't pose an imminent food-safety threat" — as long as the impasse over President Donald Trump's demand for $5.7 billion for a wall along the Mexican border gets resolved quickly.

"The longer this goes on, the more opportunities there are for things to go wrong," Hedberg says. "And without having that regulatory oversight, things could start to become problematic."

Under federal law, the real frontlines of the U.S. food safety system lie with the food industry, where producers have FDA-approved management plans to keep tainted food out of stores and restaurants. The FDA's job is to make sure those plans are followed and working, Hedberg says.

The shutdown may have cut into that capability, "But it's the responsibility of the companies to make sure they don't let their guard down just because there's a perception that the federal watchdog isn't there looking over them."

Hedberg says the FDA handles about 80% of U.S. food safety issues, sharing duties with the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service. FSIS inspects meat, poultry, and processed egg plants, and the USDA says those inspectors are still on the job during the shutdown.

So is the CDC, which investigates outbreaks of foodborne illness. And while FDA inspectors may have to skip some types of facilities during the shutdown, state and local health, agriculture and food-inspection services are still on the job.

"The longer that goes on and the more stress the working parts of the system have because they're compensating for the lack of FDA inspectors and other things, the more likely it is that something could happen," Hedberg says.

Gottlieb said because of the holidays, this week was the first when inspections would have been postponed. As a result, he said, the agency may skip "a few dozen" of the more than 8,000 inspections it conducts each year.

About a quarter of federal government agencies shut down Dec. 22 after Trump and Congress were unable to reach a deal on border security.

HealthDay News contributed to this report.

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