The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stopped performing most domestic food inspections during the partial government shutdown, but that could soon change.
Without a deal to reopen the government, the regulatory agency will have to force furloughed workers to come back without pay. The agency said it will focus attention on high-risk food items like seafood, bakery and dairy products, fruits and vegetables, prepared salads, infant formula and medical foods, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said. The risk also looks at the manufacturing history of the product and compliance history. Inspections of foreign foods will continue.
“FDA’s ongoing work upholding food safety continues, even during this partial funding lapse,” Gottlieb posted on Twitter. “Our ability to monitor/respond to emerging food safety issues is maintained through efforts of a dedicated workforce that’s fully committed to this mission.”
The partial government shutdown has been going since Dec. 22 with no sign of a compromise. A meeting Wednesday between top Democrats and President Donald Trump ended abruptly, with the president storming out when lawmakers refused to fund a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump said after the meeting it was a “total waste of time.”
The FDA inspects about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply. In a statement, the agency said it will continue operations as permitted by law.
“Our work protects the food that families feed their children and pets and ensures the effectiveness of the medicine they need, all of which contribute to improving the health and welfare of Americans,” it said. “All our work is important, but only some of our work is permitted to continue during a lapse in funding.”
Gottlieb said the FDA’s goal is to handle the most important inspections. Nearly 7,000 of the agency’s 17,000 employees are furloughed. Some FDA departments remain operational because they’re funded by user fees. That includes drug approvals, inspections of drug producing facilities and regulating tobacco products.
“There’s no question of whether it’s business as usual at FDA,” Gottlieb told NBC News. “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.”
Gottlieb said he’s considering recalling 10 percent of the food inspection team because it’s “the right thing to do for public safety.”
The Agriculture Department is already inspecting meat and poultry without pay during the shutdown.
Furloughed workers can start applying for unemployment benefits, or search for another job — things they cannot do if they’re called back to work.
Wednesday, the FDA announced an E. coli outbreak associated with romaine lettuce, which forced nationwide recalls, has ended. No new cases were reported after Dec. 4.