By Beth Mole for Ars Technica
After a year plagued by deadly E. coli outbreaks linked to widely distributed romaine lettuce, 2019 is off to an anxiety-inducing start. With hundreds of food inspectors furloughed in the ongoing government shutdown, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has suspended all routine inspections of domestic food processing facilities, according to FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., who revealed the news in an interview with the Washington Post published Wednesday.
Dr. Gottlieb said that the agency, which oversees about 80 percent of the food supply, is continuing to surveil foreign manufacturers and imported food, as well as any domestic producers involved in a current recall or outbreak.
But the agency is skipping the 160-or-so routine food inspections it usually performs each week. In those evaluations, FDA inspectors assess manufacturing practices at food-processing facilities, as well as check for unsanitary conditions, such as infestations, and contamination issues. About a third of those 160 weekly inspections involve facilities that the agency considers “high risk,” Dr. Gottlieb added. High-risk facilities are those that either handle foods particularly vulnerable to safety issues, such as soft cheeses and seafood, or facilities that have a track record of food safety problems.
“We are doing what we can to mitigate any risk to consumers through the shutdown,” Dr. Gottlieb told the paper.
He’s now working on a plan to call back 150 inspectors to focus on the high-risk facilities. While those workers still wouldn’t be paid until after the shutdown ends, Dr. Gottlieb said he was setting up an agency travel account to help those inspectors keep large balances off their personal credit cards.
Still, Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at nonprofit advocacy group The Center for Science in the Public Interest, called the missed inspections unacceptable. “That puts our food supply at risk,” Sorscher said. “Regular inspections, which help stop foodborne illness before people get sick, are vital.”
Each year, an estimated 48 million people are sickened by foodborne illnesses in the U.S., leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The good news is that meat, poultry, and egg facilities not inspected by the FDA are overseen by the US Department of Agriculture, which has maintained inspections during the government shutdown.