With hundreds of food-safety inspectors furloughed due to the ongoing government shutdown, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has suspended all “routine” inspections of U.S.-based food-processing facilities, according to a Washington Post report citing excerpts from an interview with the FDA commissioner, Scott Gottlieb.
The Post writes that Gottlieb says a plan is underway that could see inspectors back in the field as early as next week, at least at facilities deemed high-risk. The commissioner added that roughly a third of the 160 routine inspections typically conducted weekly involve high-risk facilities.
The risk of illness here is, unfortunately, greatest among the most vulnerable of the population. The same foodborne diseases that rarely make healthy people sick can be fatal to unborn babies and newborns. The risk is particularly high for those with weakened immune systems due to cancer treatments, diabetes, AIDS, and bone marrow and organ transplants, the FDA warns.
The FDA is also responsible for inspecting blood banks, vaccine and drug manufacturers, laboratories involved in animal studies, and foreign manufacturing sites that produce FDA-approved medical products — though it is not immediately clear if these types of inspections have also been affected.
The FDA could not be reached for comment due to the shutdown, which is now in its third week.
“We are doing what we can to mitigate any risk to consumers through the shutdown,” Gottlieb reportedly told the Post.
The shutdown follows an outbreak of E. coli infections that was linked to red and green leaf lettuce and cauliflower products harvested in California this November. The latest figures show 59 reported cases of E. coli, with 23 people being hospitalized. No deaths were reported.
There are more than 250 known types of foodborne diseases, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC estimates that around 48 million people get sick from foodborne diseases each year. Around 3,000 people die.
Between October 2016 and September 2017, FDA inspectors notified food-processing facilities more than 2,660 times of on-site conditions that appeared to be in violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act—the federal law that regulates food branding, additives, and product labels — according to most recent figures.
A majority of the notices appeared to be issued due to unsanitary conditions at the facilities, based on a cursory review of the inspectors’ notes.