Unpaid FDA Inspectors Tackle High-Risk Facilities as Shutdown Continues

produce in a supermarket
Some foods like produce and seafood are more worrisome in this window than others.

Arina P Habich / Shutterstock

As the partial shutdown of the U.S. government continues, many of the government's food safety inspection duties have been curtailed.

But now, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is placing a priority on inspecting as many "high-risk" food facilities as possible.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottllieb announced on Twitter that hundreds of furloughed employees would return to work (albeit unpaid) and resume food inspections. High-risk foods such as cheese, dairy products and fresh produce will take priority over lower-risk inspections like baked goods.

"These men and women are the tip of the spear in our consumer protection mission. They're the very front line. And they're on the job. The entire nation owes them gratitude. I'm inspired by their dedication," Gottlieb wrote in one of his tweets.

Earlier on Jan. 9, Gottlieb tried to reassure the public in a series of tweets that the agency was doing what it could to continue inspections, but that it was rapidly running out of funds.

Struggling to inspect

The FDA normally conducts around 160 facility inspections a week, and one-third of those facilities are considered to be a high risk for causing food-borne infections. These facilities typically deal with baby formula, vegetables, fruit, soft cheeses and seafood, among others. A facility is also considered a high risk if it has a history of food safety concerns.

The agency is following shutdown directives issued late last year by Department of Health and Human Services. The directives force the FDA to cease routine inspections, while those employees tasked with jobs deemed critical to human safety would continue to work, without pay. Such tasks include issuing recalls and investigating food-borne illnesses.

The FDA made moves earlier this month to ease the burden on inspectors working without pay by giving them access to the central expense account so they could travel without incurring large credit debt — because they don't know when the government will reimburse them, reports The New York Times.

Foreign food inspections and inspections at ports continue, despite the shutdown.

U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections, which cover meat, poultry and egg facilities, have continued during the shutdown. These inspectors are also working without pay.

Cause for concern

A head of romaine lettuce and a Petri dish of E. coli
The FDA played a part in determining the source for last year's romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak. Manjurul Haque/Shutterstock

The lack of inspections has a number of outside organizations worried.

Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the Times he was concerned about contaminated shellfish appearing on shelves, particularly clams, mussels and oysters that may come from contaminated waters.

"It can be very nasty stuff," Rosenberg explained, a former official with the seafood inspection program run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "It can be anything from E. coli to Vibrio. It is important for people to look for an inspection certificate."

The FDA has not posted any new warning letters since the beginning of the shutdown, according to an email sent to Bloomberg by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"That raises concerns that enforcement activities may have effectively stopped," the center said.