Among the many federal agencies affected by the current government shutdown is the Food and Drug Administration, which, it was revealed this week, has postponed some of its routine inspections and halted others. This is not welcome news for a nation just emerging from a severe romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak. But while there is reason to be somewhat concerned about the reduced inspections, the situation is not yet an emergency.
Hundreds of FDA inspectors have been furloughed due to the shutdown. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told Laurie McGinley and Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post that the agency was forced to suspend routine inspections of domestic food-processing facilities, but he emphasized on Twitter that some inspections are continuing. No scheduled inspections were cancelled, he said, but it is true that the FDA did not schedule any new inspections for this past week.
Gottlieb also revealed that the agency will resume scheduling inspections of “high risk” foods—like infant formula, seafood and prepared salads—next week. Inspections of what the FDA classifies as low risk foods—things like packaged crackers and cookies—will be stopped, however.
In an effort to put the situation in perspective, Gottlieb noted that the FDA ordinarily would have done “a few dozen” inspections this week, “fewer than typical given it was the first week in January.” In total, he wrote, the agency does 8,400 inspections each year. So, as Vox’s Julia Belluz puts it, the number of interrupted inspections thus represent “less than half a percent of the total inspections happening annually.”
Also worth noting is that the FDA does not oversee all domestic food inspections. It has purview over 80 percent of the country’s food supply, along with most foreign imports. All foreign food inspections are continuing as usual, Gottlieb said. But foods like domestic meat and poultry are overseen by the agriculture department, whose inspectors are continuing to work without pay, reports Sheila Kaplan of the New York Times. Many inspections are also done by state employees, who are not affected by the shutdown, according to Live Science’s Rachael Rettner.
Of course, any reduction in food inspections is less than ideal. Foodborne illnesses are not uncommon in the United States; 48 million people get sick from contaminated foods each year, and 3,000 people die from their infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Inspectors can help mitigate the risk by checking facilities for things like E. coli and salmonella contaminations, bug or rodent infestations and improper food handling. Of the approximately 160 food inspections that the FDA conducts each week, around one-third are considered high risk. But even so-called “low risk” foods can be the source of illnesses.
“The announcement that they are going to try to start up high-risk inspections is a positive step,” Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells Kaplan. “But, we’ve had outbreaks from foods that are not high risk—from flour, from packaged foods. So I think that the fact that two-thirds of establishments are not going to be inspected is still a problem.”
Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, tells Live Science’s Rettner that the food Americans are eating is likely as safe as it was before the shutdown. But that could change should the shutdown continue to drag on. State inspectors, for instance, often liaise with state experts to improve food safety, which is difficult to do during the shutdown.
“[T]he infrastructure and support to the food industry,” Chapman says, “could start to impact the safety of the food we are eating."