Some furloughed FDA safety inspectors return to work without pay to focus on ‘high risk’ foods

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty / Jevtic
Source: Getty / Jevtic

Related tags shutdown Food safety

Hundreds of furloughed FDA employees are returning to work without pay this week “to re-initiate high risk surveillance inspections across our food and medical product programs,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced in a tweet Jan. 15.

“The vast majority”​ of the 400 staffers who were mobilized at the agency’s request are inspectors or support inspections, including about 150 who focus specifically on food, Gottlieb added in a second tweet.

The still pared down staff will focus on high-risk foods, starting with samples of high risk imported produce in the Northeast region taken Jan. 14, Gottlieb noted, adding that “we’ll expand our footprint as the week progresses.”

Other high risk foods could include dairy, especially soft cheese, baby food, seafood and other produce, while lower-risk foods, for which inspections will not resume until after the shutdown ends, include products such as baked goods.

Recognizing that working without pay is not ideal, Gottlieb praised those returning to work, who he described as “the tip of the spear in our consumer protection mission. They’re the very front line. And they’re on the job.”

Adding that the “entire nation owes them gratitude,”​ Gottlieb said he is “inspired by their dedication.”

Full impact of shutdown unknown

Many of those returning to work have been off the job since Dec. 22 when the federal government partially shutdown as a debate between the Trump Administration and Congress around how much funding to appropriate to building a wall between the US and Mexico came to a standstill.

Without fiscal 2019 appropriations or a continuing resolution, FDA was forced to focus only on “activities to address imminent threats to the safety of human life and activities funded by carryover user fee funds,”​ according to the agency.

It explains on its website that “mission critical public health activities … include, among other things: maintaining core functions to handle and respond to emergencies – such as monitoring for and quickly responding to outbreaks related to foodborne illness,”​ supporting high-risk food and medical product recalls, screening imported food and “addressing other critical public health issues that involve imminent threats to the safety of human life.”

This includes an ongoing investigation into the most recent leafy-green foodborne illness outbreak, which was traced back to central California, Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response, told the Washington Post.

What it does not include, however, are efforts to stop foodborne illness before people become sick, noted Sarah Sorscher, the Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs at Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Warning letters

It also does not cover “work to finish rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act … impairing efforts to improve produce safety, recall communication and outbreak tracing,”​ she added in a statement Jan. 8

She also raised “concerns that enforcement activities effectively may have stopped”​ based on a lack of warning letter posted on the agency’s website since the partial shutdown began. Typically, warning letters are posted on the agency’s website weekly and offer a glimpse into what inspectors are finding and where they are focusing their energy.

Under normal circumstances, FDA conducts about 160 routine food inspections a week and about one-third are considered high-risk. Together, these break down to about a tenth of all registered food facilities in the US.

Given the potentially large percentage of facilities that will not be inspected, CSPI has called on FDA to be more transparent about how the partial shutdown is impacting food safety. Specifically Sorscher said, CSPI would like to see more information about what types of inspections, import screenings and enforcement activities it considers ‘critical’ and which have been suspected.

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