Food poisoning is common and sometimes deadly. That’s why the federal government regularly inspects the food supply — to keep E. coli out of your salad and salmonella away from your peanut butter.
But 19 days into the second-longest-running government shutdown in US history, panicky news reports went viral suggesting that all food inspections had stopped.
The implication was that it’s not safe to, well, eat.
In response, the head of the Food and Drug Administration, Scott Gottlieb, got on Twitter to correct the record. His message was clear: Food inspections have only been interrupted as of this week — and not all have been halted.
We should have the mechanisms in place next week. I'm getting the total number of inspections, out of the 8,400 we do each year, that were postponed this week. It may be a few dozen but not much more. So reporting we "stopped" really means reporting we didn't do 20+/8,400 on time— Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) January 10, 2019
That’s not great, but it’s not exactly a full-fledged public health crisis, as some news outlets have suggested — at least not yet. Here’s why.
So far, less than half a percent of total annual inspections have been interrupted
The FDA oversees 80 percent of the US food supply. That amounts to essentially everything at the grocery store that isn’t raw meat, poultry, and eggs. Vegetables, fruits, fish, canned goods, baby formula, prepackaged foods — they’re all under the agency’s jurisdiction. (The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service oversees the rest, and the good folks there are continuing to do inspections in the shutdown without pay.)
The FDA splits food-producing facilities into two broad categories: low and high risk. Foods considered high risk include baby formula, raw produce, and seafood. Low-risk foods include things like crackers and packaged cookies.
According to Gottlieb, the FDA does about 8,400 inspections each year. Because the agency doesn’t typically do inspections over the holidays, this is the first week where inspections haven’t happened.
Of the 8,400 inspections in total, so far “a few dozen” didn’t happen, Gottlieb said on Twitter, “but not much more.” So that’s less than half a percent of the total inspections happening annually so far affected.
FDA inspections at high-risk facilities should pick back up next week. What has stopped during the shutdown, he explained, is the routine inspection of low-risk food facilities. So that means that as long as the government stays closed, low-risk facilities won’t get inspected by FDA but their inspections at high-risk facilities will go on. And all USDA inspections — of meat, poultry, and eggs — will continue.
That said, we're only going to be doing routine surveillance inspections of high risk food facilities, which is about 1/3 of the about 8,400 inspections we do each year. What is stopped is the routine inspections of non-high-risk facilities (think a cookie or cracker bakery).— Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) January 10, 2019
When asked what would happen in the event of an outbreak of foodborne illness, Gottlieb was reassuring:
Our Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) teams that engage in outbreak response are stood up and available. Responding to outbreaks is a top priority and an excepted activity. Consumer protection is our top priority.— Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) January 10, 2019
That helps explain why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has worked with the FDA on responding to an E. coli outbreak related to romaine lettuce, posted an update about it yesterday, declaring that it’s finally over.
Fewer food inspections isn’t a good thing — but a lot of our food isn’t inspected anyway
I asked Bill Marler, one of America’s leading food safety lawyers, for his thoughts on the small blip in inspections.
“Lack of inspections at any level is concerning,” he said.
But the bigger problem, he said, is that the FDA is underfunded and understaffed when it comes to food inspections. “There aren’t enough inspections anyway,” he said. That’s why food safety and public health advocates have long called for more resources to be put toward inspections, he added.
Politico’s agriculture reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich had a great Twitter thread on that point:
*Thrilling thread re: FDA food inspections & shutdown— Helena Bottemiller Evich (@hbottemiller) January 9, 2019
FDA might do something like 50 inspections of high-risk food facilities (think soft cheese, seafood) per week. Most people agree these inspections are important.
But there are *20k* high-risk food facilities in the U.S.
The idea that a couple weeks of no routine food inspections puts us all in danger is probably a bit of a stretch.— Helena Bottemiller Evich (@hbottemiller) January 9, 2019
Advocates have long urged more frequent inspections.
A 2011 food safety law required FDA to inspect all high-risk facilities at least once in the first FIVE YEARS.
So only a small fraction of our food supply gets inspected for safety by regulators before it hits store shelves. That was true before the shutdown. And while the partial closure of the government has certainly not helped matters, it’s by no means a new public health emergency. So go ahead and eat your salad and cheese as the shutdown drags on.