On Friday, a spokesman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed that the government shutdown has forced the agency to suspend all routine food safety inspections until funding is restored. With 60 percent of investigators furloughed, inspections will be limited to facilities believe to "present an immediate threat to public health."
As Congress’ budget stalemate approaches its third week, more alarming consequences of the lapse in federal funding are beginning to emerge. The FDA, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), are among the many agencies deemed “non-essential” during the government shutdown. As a result, 976 of the agency’s 1,602 investigators have been placed on enforced leave.
Steven Immergut, assistant commissioner for public affairs of the FDA, told reporters that the longer Congress delays the restoration of funding, the greater the effect may be on consumers. Right now, the 626 active safety inspectors are forced to work across the agency portfolio, and will not be dispatched for routine visits.
“During the lapse in appropriations, FDA will not be conducting routine domestic or international inspections of food facilities,” Immergut told NBC News. “Excepted FDA inspectors are prioritizing their work based on public health need and are being deployed to respond to recalls, outbreaks or other situations requiring immediate attention.”
“However, they will not be conducting important routine work to support inspections,” he added.
Potential nationwide health risks aside, the furloughed investigators will likely suffer more as they will be forced to work around the clock once funding is restored. For every day they sit at home, delayed inspections are stacking up, generating a backlog that may tax the agency for months. Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that this is a hard blow to an agency whose protocols are already sluggish.
“For every day the government is shut down, it’s going to take them many weeks to make up the work that’s not being done,” Smith DeWaal explained. “When they come back to work there’ll be a backlog of plants that should have been visited during this period that aren't being visited. Our inspection system is already pretty anemic, and now it’s not even moving, now it’s totally dysfunctional.”