FDA Suspends Routine Inspections of Food Plants

50 inspections of "high risk" facilities have been cancelled so far during this shutdown.

As we head into day 20 of the partial government shutdown, there seems to be no end in sight, and the finger-pointing continues.

We know there are many big impacts of the furlough of 800,000 federal workers, but one will impact the supply chain in the food industry.

In an interview with the Washington Post, FDA administrator Scott Gottlieb said that the agency has suspended all “routine” inspections of U.S. food processing facilities due to hundreds of FDA inspectors sitting in shutdown purgatory.

The U.S. is coming off a few different Romaine lettuce scares – including one in November where E coli sickened some 59 people, with two dozen of them being hospitalized. So, forgive us if most of us are not thrilled to hear this news.

Gottlieb says he’s working on a plan now that could get some inspectors back into the fold as early as next week, in order to target inspections at facilities the agency considers “high risk.” This might include those that handle foods like soft cheese and seafood, as well as processors who have encountered problems with FDA compliance in the past. Gottlieb says that, of the 160 routine inspections the agency typically carries out each week, about a third of them are for these high-risk facilities.

The CDC says foodborne illness kills 3,000 Americans each year and, with 50 high risk inspections cancelled so far during this shutdown, people are angry. One group, The Center for Science in the Public Interest, said putting our supply chain at such risk is unacceptable. For his part, director Gottlieb is scrambling to revise guidance that says the FDA can’t perform regular inspections during a shortfall and, if successful, he believes he can recall about 150 inspectors to get back to the most urgent business.

According to the Washington Post, much of the FDA is funded by user fees, which are allowing it to continue reviewing things like pharmaceuticals and medical devices. But most of it’s food-related work is paid for by precisely the appropriations that have not been approved by Congress. That leaves food processing running its own regulatory show, at least for now. And while many processors are consistent, Gizmodo reminds us that between years 2016 and 2017, there were over 2,600 violations served by the FDA for onsite conditions that were not compliant with the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.