The Cost of Stopping Routine Food Inspections During the Shutdown

The FDA is suspending routine inspections of domestic food-processing facilities due to funding shortfalls during the shutdown.
The FDA is suspending routine inspections of domestic food-processing facilities due to funding shortfalls during the shutdown. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees 80 percent of the U.S.’s food supply, has ceased all routine inspections of domestic food-processing facilities as hundreds of food inspectors are furloughed because of the government shutdown.

The FDA normally conducts about 160 routine inspections per week, but FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told the Washington Post that a legal guidance from the 2013 shutdown precludes the FDA from conducting regular inspections during budget shortfalls. “We are doing what we can to mitigate any risk to consumers through the shutdown,” he said.

So what exact safeguards are we losing and how much do they matter?

The suspension of routine inspections will most directly impact the FDA’s preventative functions like evaluating the need for recalls. Its outbreak-detection and drug-testing operations should continue unaffected.

Routine inspections typically involve an FDA official visiting a facility and checking for visual indicators of unsanitary conditions, such as animal feces, and general disorder. Inspectors will also interview employees and managers and take environmental swabs and product samples.

“Depending on the level of infraction or problem that’s detected, you could potentially trigger a recall,” says Patrick Baur, a postdoctoral fellow at UC–Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. “Recalls of that nature are preventative and hopefully happen before anybody gets sick.”

FDA food inspectors responded to a number of high-profile food contamination emergencies last year, including two multi-state E. coli outbreaks linked to tainted romaine lettuce and a large-scale salmonella outbreak linked to cage-free eggs.

As long as the shutdown persists, America’s food supply chain will generally be less equipped to prevent these types of outbreaks. Gottlieb has said that he is attempting to bring back food inspectors by next week to visit facilities that process high-risk foodstuffs like seafood, soft cheeses, and vegetables.

One of the main problems with this stopgap measure is that the FDA has not publicly enumerated everything it considers high-risk. “[The FDA] was supposed to have issued regulations for how they determined and dealt with high-risk facilities,” says Jaydee Hanson, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety. “They didn’t get that done,” as is required under the Food Safety Modernization Act. Without clear high-risk determinations, it’s unclear whether the FDA will bring inspectors to check on foods like melons, which have a history of listeria contamination.

Baur additionally suggested that consigning inspectors to do their work without pay may pose a morale issue with a job that is already taxing. Indeed, inspectors are often not well paid, incur many out-of-pocket expenses, and have to be on the road for long stretches of time. “The human toll of requiring inspectors to work without getting paid raises real public safety questions,” says Baur. “How long are they going to be able to do their jobs well under those pretty horrendous working conditions?”

For the time being, average food consumers can only really sit back and hope that the shutdown ends soon. Hanson says that he isn’t telling anyone to take steps like avoiding salads at this time, but adds that he’s personally decided to abstain due to the food inspection suspension.

Baur argues that it’s difficult for people to try to determine what is and isn’t safe to eat given the current lack of inspections. “The safety of the nation’s food supply is something that has to be handled at a systemic level,” he says. “It’s just completely unpractical and frankly impossible to expect individuals to manage that on their own.” He is also concerned that ceasing routine inspections may erode public faith in food safety systems. “The more pernicious effect of this shutdown is to add to the natural anxiety about whether or not we can trust our food.”