What The Government Shutdown Means For Food Safety

Richard Wilson February 1, 2019

“There’s no question of whether it’s business as usual at FDA,” commissioner Scott 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.”

Normally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are the first responders when it comes to E. coli Romaine in lettuce, Listeria in ice cream and/or Salmonella in peanut butter among other things. But during the government shutdown, some of those inspections are falling by the wayside. The agency, which oversees the inspection of 80 percent of the U.S food supply, has “more than 200 food investigators” on the job “not counting support staff and supervisors” out of about 550 total professionals “when the agency is fully operational,” according to Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, suggesting the agency is running at less than 50 percent of normal capacity.

The FDA shares responsibility for most U.S. food inspection with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA is responsible for the safety of most meat, poultry and egg products, while the FDA regulates other foods, including fruit and vegetables. Fortunately, the USDA’s slaughterhouse inspectors remain on the job, unpaid, during the shutdown.

Due to a surge in product recalls over the last decade, many U.S. consumers remain anxious about the safety of their food supply. The news that the FDA doesn’t have the funding they need to continue with routine food safety inspections has everybody on edge. Although inspections by the USDA have continued, the FDA usually conducts 160 inspections per week and in four weeks since the government shut down, Gottlieb has already had to cancel 50 visits to high-risk facilities. Shockingly, this is what he’s required to do based on the guidelines developed from the 2013 shutdown.

FDA inspections are normally conducted at a random sampling of facilities, which means only a small number of operations are checked during any given week. This has led many food supply chain observers to argue that even when the government is operating as usual, the FDA doesn’t have the proper funding or staffing to conduct a sufficient number of food safety inspections. This is evidenced by the multiple foodborne illness outbreaks the food & beverage industry experienced last year. According to reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48 million people get sick each year from contaminated food and as many as 3,000 a year are killed by it.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was introduced in 2011, increasing the FDA’s responsibilities but full funding is yet to be provided to meet this mandate. In 2019, it’s still hard to see how FDA will be able to meet tightened inspections timelines under the FSMA without significant increases in staff and funding. The Trump administration proposed a fiscal 2018 FDA budget of $1.89 billion in direct government funding, which is $854 million less than current levels — a 31% cut.

The shutdown has led to a lower chance of random government inspections, suggesting that food manufacturers may be more likely to cut corners on food safety. However, if a food manufacturing company faces a recall, it could have disastrous consequences for the company’s brand, especially with media looking to highlight the reason for the product recall. Eventually, regular food inspections will recommence, which is why is it especially critical now for food manufacturers to mitigate risks where possible to, if anything, protect their brand reputation and customers.

While there have only been a few recalls so far in January, “is that because there are fewer recalls or (is the FDA) just not putting them up on their website because they don’t have the people power to do it?” says Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety attorney.

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