FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb announced this week that he was requesting furloughed federal employees to return to work and resume inspections of certain high-risk foods. Typically, the FDA conducts about 160 food inspections per week. Inspections have been halted since the federal government shut down and 40% of the FDA’s workforce was put on furlough. Dr. Gottlieb stated that he hoped that several hundred workers would return without pay to resume inspections of foods such as soft cheeses, seafood, some fruits and vegetables, baby formula, and unpasteurized juices. About one-third of all of the FDA’s food inspections are for high risk products, and the FDA typically inspects about 8,000 food plants in one year. Dr. Gottlieb sought and received permission from the White House and Congress to call the furloughed workers back specifically to inspect the highest risk foods.
Since the furlough, few inspections had been conducted because of the timing of the holiday season. Because of this, it initially appeared that not many scheduled inspections would be affected. However, the shutdown has continued longer than expected. A handful of inspections were scheduled for mid-January that will now be rescheduled pending the return of furloughed workers. About 150 of the returning workers are in the food safety arena and will be conducting inspections. As many as 250 more employees will return to inspect drugs and devices. About 60% of the FDA’s work, including product inspections for drugs and devices, is paid for by industry members’ fees and not government funded. These activities have continued in light of the shutdown, but even these may run out of private funds within the next month.
Not all foods have gone un-inspected since the shutdown began. Inspections of meat and some egg products continued because USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service workers were required by Congress to continue full USDA inspections despite the shutdown. The return of even some of the FDA’s food inspection team means that the safety of American consumers will be protected while the inspectors themselves work each day without the expectation of a paycheck.
The role of the FDA in American society has become a popular topic of legal discussion, with experts offering opinions on everything from the effects of the government shut down on public safety, to the recent spate of E.coli and salmonella outbreaks. It remains to be seen whether the interruption in food inspections becomes an issue in any future litigation, should outbreaks arise from foods that would have been – but were not – inspected during the tumultuous shutdown period.