OPINION: Food inspection in the US is not as effective as previously thought

In the wake of the government shutdown’s temporary abatement, and with reports coming out that negotiations for long-term funding aren’t going smoothly, the operative ability of the Food and Drug Administration should be called into question.

The FDA is responsible for protecting and promoting public health through the supervision of areas such as tobacco, over-the-counter medication, vaccines and food safety.

Issues of food safety have come into prominence recently with a spate of food recalls and warnings in the past several months.

In December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an outbreak of E. coli in romaine lettuce. On Jan. 29, Tyson Foods Inc. announced a recall of over 36,000 pounds of chicken nuggets because the chicken might contain rubber. In October, Perdue Foods recalled over 68,000 pounds of gluten-free chicken nuggets over fears of wood contamination.

With the government shutdown, the FDA was forced to shut down aspects of its operations including food safety inspections. Not all inspections were shut down, and while this is worrying, it’s not as bad as it could be.

The FDA splits the inspection of food-producing facilities into two categories, low-risk and high-risk. High-risk foods include raw produce and seafood, while low-risk foods include packaged cookies and crackers.

During the shutdown, the FDA suspended all inspections of low-risk facilities and did not inspection high-risk facilities until Jan. 16. Again, this isn’t as bad as it sounds because the FDA does not inspect during holidays. Functionally, there was only a week where the FDA did not inspect high-risk facilities.

FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb wrote in a tweet on Jan. 9 that the FDA carries out 8,400 inspections per year and that only a few dozen inspections were missed by the time of the tweet, which is half a percent of yearly inspections.

The shutdown had a minimal impact on the FDA’s operations, but if Congress cannot come to a conclusive solution to funding the government, the situation could become far worse.

The FDA will make sure high-risk inspections are carried out, but will not pay the employees carrying out the inspections.

Sarah Sorscher, the deputy director of regulatory affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in an interview with NBC News that she worried about the quality of inspections during a shutdown. She said she is concerned about food inspectors not giving their whole attention to inspections because of anxiety from not paying their bills. She said she believes the long-term effects of the shutdown might also lead to these individuals leaving their positions as inspectors for private sector jobs because a lack of pay.

This isn’t the only concern the shutdown introduces. On average, the FDA carries out 50 high-risk inspections and 160 low-risk inspections per week. The issue with this is that there are around 20,000 high-risk facilities and 80,000 low-risk facilities in the U.S. Most of the food on shelves goes uninspected.

It’s a tad ironic. The shutdown doesn’t actually have much of an effect on the amount of food inspected in the U.S., but only because most of the food in the U.S. isn’t inspected. It seems the FDA doesn’t have the capacity to  serve the U.S. to the fullest. 

So don’t worry, the government shutdown impeding the FDA’s ability to operate doesn’t affect the average consumer in the slightest, and any future shutdown likely won’t either, but people should worry about the FDA’s ineffectiveness when it comes to food inspection.

The Office of Inspector General found that government inspectors failed to take action on one of every five serious food-safety risks, and the Trump Administration has proposed large FDA budget cuts multiple times over the last two years.

The FDA is underfunded and understaffed and this is especially an issue when an estimated 48 million Americans get food-borne illnesses each year.

So no, the government shutdown hasn’t affected food safety in the U.S., mostly because food safety in the U.S. is already falling to shambles.