The Food and Drug Administration has stopped routine inspections of fresh produce and other food facilities because of the partial government shutdown, but Commissioner Scott Gottlieb says plans are underway to somewhat remedy that by mid-January.
Inspections of imported food continues, according to the agency, and recall and outbreak investigations, including the E. coli outbreak that sickened 62 people in the U.S., are also ongoing.
Gottlieb has taken to Twitter to allay food safety concerns during the shutdown, but he bluntly admitted the shutdown does have an effect on the FDA’s mission.
“It’s not business as usual, and we are not doing all the things we would do under normal circumstances,” Gottlieb told NBC News. “There are important things we are not doing.”
On Twitter, he said the agency should have the “mechanisms” should be in place to increase high-risk inspections by the week of Jan. 14.
“We’re taking steps to expand the scope of food safety surveillance inspections we’re doing during the shutdown to make sure we continue inspecting high risk food facilities,” he tweeted Jan. 9. “(Thirty-one percent) of our inventory of domestic inspections are considered high risk.
That includes leafy greens and some other produce eaten raw, according to the FDA.
“There’s discussion today that we've ‘stopped’ high-risk food surveillance inspections,” he also tweeted Jan. 9. “Fact: We’re working to continue those inspections. It's true in (the) 2013 shutdown, those inspections were stopped. We’ve taken a different posture based on sound public health and legal rationale.”
On Twitter and in a Jan. 9 notice on the end of the E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce, Gottlieb praised federal workers. He also noted that the nation’s network that alerts health officials to a possible outbreak remains in place.
“Upholding the safety of the foods we eat and feed to our families is a critical element of the FDA’s public health mission,” he said in the E. coli update. “We routinely work with local and state health departments to monitor emerging safety signals possibly indicating when a food available for purchase in the U.S. marketplace may be unsafe for public consumption. This ongoing work continues, even during this partial lapse in federal funding.
"Our ability to monitor for and respond to emerging food safety issues is maintained through the efforts of a very dedicated workforce that’s fully committed to this mission,” Gottlieb said in the notice.
The United Fresh Produce Association, responding to a question about the government’s shutdown’s effects on inspections, released a statement.
“We continue to encourage Congress and the administration to resolve the funding issues before them and reopen the government,” according to the statement. “There are important agencies such as USDA, FDA, EPA, Department of Labor, that provide critical services to our member companies in their daily business requirements.”