The protracted government shutdown may increase Americans’ chances of eating contaminated food.
Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on Twitter the agency has cut back significantly on safety inspections of domestic food because of the ongoing partial government shutdown.
Gottlieb added that he’s looking to bring back some of the 7,000 FDA employees who are on furlough to conduct inspections of high-risk facilities, though they would initially have to work without getting paid.
In a typical week, the FDA runs 160 inspections of domestic food facilities, looking for bacterial contamination, insect infestations and unhygienic conditions. About 31 percent of those facilities are considered high-risk, handling products such as seafood, soft cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, prepared salads and infant formula.
Though Gottlieb said foreign food inspections would continue, he acknowledged routine inspections of domestic facilities have halted.
“It’s not business as usual, and we are not doing all the things we would do under normal circumstances,’’ Gottlieb told NBC News. “There are important things we are not doing.”
That could mean failing to stop the outbreak of foodborne illnesses, which sicken 48 million people and kill 3,000 every year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Wednesday, the CDC said the E. coli outbreak linked to California romaine lettuce that started in October was over. That incident spread through 16 states and sickened 62 people, with 25 of them requiring hospitalization.
Food inspections are not the only vital function performed by the FDA’s 17,000 employees that has been curtailed by the shutdown. As in the 2013 government closure, which lasted 16 days, the agency has had to stop clinical trials of new drugs. According to Gottlieb, reviews of imported medical devices have continued.
But the FDA oversees 80 percent of the nation’s food supply, so keeping it safe represents a more pressing need for the country’s residents, and anything that may compromise that task raises red flags.
Sarah Sorscher, Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs for the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the diminished inspections are a major concern.
“We urge the FDA to publish more information about the impact of the shutdown on the safety of the food supply, including more about which types of inspection, import screening, and enforcement activities are considered critical and which have been suspended,” Sorscher said in a statement.
Gottlieb pointed out that, even if the government had been working as usual, the FDA wouldn’t have conducted inspections during the two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s Day, so this is the first week when the shutdown’s effects are really being felt.
And he underscored the efforts to restart inspections of high-risk facilities after several were postponed.
“All of our work at the #FDA is critical, so nothing we stand down is unimportant,’’ Gottlieb tweeted. “But the functions that can most directly impact consumer safety will continue, to the best of our abilities, subject to the legal and financial limitations of the current circumstances.’’
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'It's not business as usual': Federal shutdown brings FDA cutbacks, fewer food inspections