The Food and Drug Administration has postponed routine domestic food safety inspections of many high-risk foods this week due to the ongoing partial government shutdown, the agency’s commissioner said Wednesday.
Scott Gottlieb, the head of the agency, said in a series of tweets that the FDA would normally inspect about 160 domestic manufacturing and food processing plants each week, about a third of which are associated with high-risk foods (like seafood, soft cheeses, and fresh fruits and vegetables). But such inspections have not been scheduled as usual due to the shutdown.
“FDA’s professional staff remain fully dedicated to our mission,” Gottlieb said in a tweet Wednesday. “We’re taking whatever steps we can to support our colleagues as they fulfill our commitments to the American people under challenging circumstances.”
The commissioner said he was working to bring back 150 inspectors as early as next week who have been furloughed during the shutdown, according to both The New York Times and The Washington Post. Foreign food inspections have proceeded as normal, and the Department of Agriculture has continued to inspect domestic meat and poultry, the Times reported.
The FDA oversees about 80 percent of America’s food supply and many overseas imports, and helps counter food-borne diseases that send about 128,000 people to the hospital each year, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Just last year, the agency and the CDC helped pinpoint an outbreak of E. coli to romaine lettuce and track breakfast cereal that sickened some people with salmonella.
The shutdown has stretched deep into its third week and is on track to become the longest since the 1970s if the government doesn’t reopen by Saturday. President Donald Trump has remained steadfast in his demands for $5.7 billion from Congress to construct a border wall and resisted Democrats’ efforts to forge a deal to reopen the government without it.
On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) said the president abruptly walked out of a White House meeting to discuss ending the shutdown, saying Trump threw a “temper tantrum because he couldn’t get his way.”
“A total waste of time,” the president declared of the meeting afterward. “I said bye-bye, nothing else works!”
While the FDA’s inspections are an important part of American food safety standards, there are tens of thousands of food facilities in the country, and it would be impossible for the agency to inspect all of them every year.
“I think most people agree these inspections are important. But there are 80k food facilities in the U.S.,” Helena Bottemiller Evich, an agriculture reporter for Politico, noted. “The idea that a couple weeks of no routine food inspections puts us all in danger is probably a bit of a stretch.”
Other consumer advocacy groups have argued that postponing the FDA inspections will put the American food supply at risk.