The FDA is working to restore some food-safety inspections for products deemed high-risk, such as seafood and raw fruit, that have been suspended or delayed because of the government shutdown.
“We’re taking steps to expand the scope of food safety surveillance inspections we’re doing during the shutdown to make sure we continue inspecting high risk food facilities,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Wednesday in a thread on Twitter.
It’s unlikely, however, that a large number of inspections for high-risk foods have been missed or delayed since the shutdown began shortly before the holidays.
Several types of food fall under FDA’s high-risk category, including seafood, soft cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables, spices, shell eggs, infant formula and medical foods. A food facility can also be considered high-risk if it has a history of food safety problems.
Shutdown guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services, released late last year, directed that FDA would cease most of its routine food-safety inspections during a lapse in appropriations. Employees who are excepted from the shutdown remain on the job, working without pay, to continue operations that are considered critical for human safety or protection of property, such as continuing food-borne illness investigations and handling dangerous recalls.
As POLITICO reported earlier this week, FDA changed its internal travel policy to try to lessen the burden on excepted inspectors who are working without pay. The agency is still working to determine its breakdown of furloughed inspectors versus those who are excepted during the prolonged shutdown, which is now in its 20th day.
“We should have the mechanisms in place next week,” Gottlieb said via Twitter, regarding high-risk inspections. He noted FDA had stopped or delayed only a small number of the roughly 8,400 inspections the agency routinely conducts each year.
“It may be a few dozen but not much more,” the commissioner said of the postponed inspections.
High-risk food facilities are typically not inspected very often, even when the government is fully funded.
Under the Food Safety Modernization Act, FDA is required to inspect all high-risk food facilities every three years.
Food-safety advocates have long argued that they should be inspected more frequently as a routine practice, but FDA has a limited number of inspectors. There are roughly 20,000 food facilities that are considered high-risk in the U.S.
There were more than 88,000 registered food facilities in the United States in 2016, according to FDA data.
The commissioner said in a series of tweets on Wednesday that the agency typically conducts about 160 routine facility inspections per week. About 31 percent of those would be considered high-risk, he said.
Routine food safety inspections for food facilities not deemed high-risk, such as bakeries, will continue to be suspended during the lapse in funding.
“We’re still doing ALL of our regular foreign food inspections,” Gottlieb said on Twitter on Wednesday. In 2016, there were some 212,000 registered foreign food facilities.
“We assess risk based on an overall, cross-cutting risk profile,” the commissioner added. “The primary factors contributing to a facility’s risk profile include: the type of food, the manufacturing process, and the compliance history of the facility.”
Meat inspection, which is handled by the Agriculture Department, is not interrupted by the partial shutdown. Food safety inspectors are still overseeing meat and poultry plants as required, though they are working without pay.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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The Article Was Written/Published By: HBottemiller@politico.com (Helena Bottemiller Evich)