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FDA restarts some food, drug inspections halted by shutdown

Unpaid staff head back to work.

Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, announced that certain food inspections, temporarily stopped by the shutdown, will resume as unpaid inspectors go back to work. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

Hundreds of Food and Drug Administration inspectors and other staff resumed work Tuesday, focusing on facilities that produce higher-risk foods, drugs and devices, according to the agency’s commissioner.

Those workers, who had been furloughed because of the government’s partial shutdown, remain unpaid, said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who discussed the move in tweets and a subsequent interview.

About 150 of the returning workers are in food safety. Most are inspectors but some work in laboratories and other areas, Gottlieb said. As many as 250 more employees will be resuming work inspecting drugs and devices.

The FDA commissioner praised the workforce, saying he got an “overwhelmingly positive” response when he raised the prospect of inspectors returning to work without pay.

The FDA, which oversees about 80 percent of the food supply, had suspended routine inspections of domestic food-processing facilities because of the government shutdown.

Routine inspections occur at both “low-risk” and “high-risk” facilities. The latter group includes plants that produce foods such as seafood, baby formula and soft cheese, and drugs and devices that must be kept sterile, or have a history of safety problems. Sampling of imported, high-risk food products at ports of entry also have restarted, Gottlieb said.

The agency typically conducts about 160 routine food inspections a week, with one-third targeting facilities considered high risk. The low-risk inspections will not resume because of the shutdown.

Bringing the inspectors back to work was a major accomplishment for the agency, Gottlieb said, adding that he got the final go-ahead on Friday from the Office of Management and Budget, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Sandra Eskin, director of the Safe Food Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, praised Gottlieb “for doing everything he can to ensure that the risk to consumers is minimized.”

However, she added, the situation “underscores the vital role that government plays in consumer health and safety, and why it’s so important to get the government back up and running.”

Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, also welcomed the increased inspections but noted that many food facilities will not get scrutiny. She said she also was concerned about the long-term impact of the shutdown on the workers themselves.

“Many of these workers were not highly paid to begin with, and there is a limit to how long they can go without money coming in for support,” she said.

Some other high-priority inspections — including those involving food-borne disease outbreaks and product recalls — have been conducted throughout the shutdown by unpaid staff. Food inspections involving meat and poultry are conducted by the Agriculture Department; those inspections have continued throughout the shutdown with unpaid inspectors.

About 60 percent of the FDA’s work — including product reviews for drugs and devices — are covered by user fees paid by industry. Those activities are continuing, but Gottlieb said the agency could begin running out of the fees used for drug reviews in five weeks.

Most routine drug and device inspections, as well as most food-related work, are not paid for by user fees. Those tasks are covered by congressional appropriations, which have not been approved.

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