FDA Halts Food Inspections Amid Government Shutdown

Lea van der Merwe

The last few months have seen a number of outbreaks related to food contamination in the United States, and it looks like things could be about to get even worse.

The partial government shutdown, which has been going strong for almost three weeks now, has left nearly one million federal employees in a state of financial uncertainty. That includes approximately 41 percent of the employees working for the Food and Drug Administration, according to the New York Times.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the FDA's commissioner, spoke on Wednesday about the effects that the shutdown is having on the federal agency. Gottlieb warned that the FDA has been forced to stop their routine inspections of certain high-risk foods, including seafood, fruit, and vegetables. Meat and poultry is still being inspected by the agency, but those doing so are working under deferred pay schedules.

All overseas imports are still being inspected as well.

Dr. Gottlieb has said he is hoping to find a way to bring another 150 employees back to work, but is conscious of how it may affect them personally -- considering they won't be given their back pay until the shutdown ends.

"These are people who are now furloughed and can collect unemployment insurance or take a second job. If we pull them in and tell them they have to work, they can't collect. I have to make sure I'm not imposing an undue hardship."

"These are inspections where they catch issues before people get sick," said Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The announcement that they are going to try to start up high-risk inspections is a positive step. But, we've had outbreaks from foods that are not high risk — from flour, from packaged foods. So I think that the fact that two-thirds of establishments are not going to be inspected is still a problem."

Also under continued surveillance, despite the shutdown, are producers and factories that have a history of outbreaks, according to Gottlieb.

Fortunately, unlike many other government agencies, the FDA is not solely reliant on funding provided by the government. More than half of their funding actually comes from user fees imposed on the pharmaceutical, medical device, and generic drug industries subject to FDA regulations.

As a result, the agency is still able to pay some of its employees. However, many of the funds have had to be redirected so that more urgent inspections can continue to take place. There are approximately 10,000 employees still working, despite the shutdown.

But Michael Halpern -- deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists -- is concerned about a major backlog being created because of the workers who are on furlough. He is also worried about the redirections that have had to take place.

"We have food outbreaks even during normal times, and if the agency is stretched even thinner, it can't cover much ground," he said.