Government Shutdown Stops Crucial FDA Food Safety Inspections

Unrecognizable woman shops for produce in supermarket
Image via Steve Debenport/Getty Images

The FDA is struggling to perform crucial food safety duties amid the shutdown

Nearly three weeks into the government shutdown created by our president the pouting toddler, and we keep hearing more disturbing things about what it all means for everyday Americans. Today’s awful tidbit? The shutdown is causing a halt to most Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food safety inspections. That means no more FDA inspectors looking for things like salmonella, E. coli, and listeria in our food.

Which is nothing short of alarming.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb tells NBC News that he’s trying to make sure the most essential inspections are still performed — without fully disrespecting employees who aren’t receiving a paycheck. “There’s no question of whether it’s business as usual at FDA,” he said. “It’s not business as usual, and we are not doing all the things we would do under normal circumstances. There are important things we are not doing.”

The good news is that the FDA does plan to resume some inspections, as Gottlieb explained. The bad news? It will mean forcing furloughed employees to work without pay. But considering the recalls we’ve seen in recent months for beef, lettuce, cauliflower, and even cake mix it’s easy to see why the agency would consider such a drastic move in the name of public safety.

Food companies are still able to do their own quality control, but of course, the FDA is there for a reason — as a check and balance. Companies can still recall food items and the FDA will still announce those recalls, which is a relief. Also of note is that food from foreign countries is all still being inspected regardless of the shutdown because of how important those inspections are — it’s domestic product that isn’t being handled as long as the government remains shut down. Gottlieb says, “We’re doing everything we can to try to maintain our basic consumer protection role. That’s our focus.”

Some FDA work including drug approvals and inspections of the facilities that make them is supported by user fees and not affected by the shutdown. The part of the budget appropriated by Congress is on hold — and that’s the part that pays employees to perform food inspections. There are now 7,000 FDA employees on furlough, which is 41 percent of the agency’s staff.

Gottlieb is looking to call back to work without pay some of the agency’s 5,000 investigators for the higher risk domestic facilities. “For me to do that, it would require calling back about 10 percent of our inspection force,” he explains.

“It’s something we currently aren’t doing. I think it’s the right thing to do for public safety,” he says.

As far as what qualifies as high-risk? It starts with facilities that have already had outbreaks of listeria, salmonella, or other health issues. Then, the focus shifts to food groups more likely to have contamination problems. “For example, cheese might be a high-risk food,” Gottlieb said. “Low-risk would be a bakery, so a facility that manufactures crackers – that would be low-risk.”

Citing the somewhat low starting pay for FDA inspectors, Gottlieb says he’s trying to balance the needs of the public — and his employees who are currently without a paycheck. “We want to protect the public and we will. But I am mindful of the impact that we have on the people of the agency.”

While furloughed employees are allowed to file for unemployment benefits or even find another temporary job, they can do neither of those things if they go back to work for the FDA without a paycheck.

Trump’s refusal to open the government is hurting Americans beyond the federal employees going without pay. The safety of our food is now in question, which is outrageous. This shutdown could continue on for several more weeks — or even months. We’re held hostage by a president who cares for nothing but himself — and the implications will be far-reaching.