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Unpaid FDA Workers Restart ‘High Risk’ Food Inspections

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Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

After a year that saw the most Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) food safety investigations in at least 12 years, one of the most frightening impacts of the ongoing government shutdown has been the suspension of routine food safety investigations by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).


Now it looks like America's eaters can rest a little easier. FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb announced on Twitter Monday that FDA employees had stepped up to do some important food inspection work unpaid.

"We re-starting high risk food inspections as early as tomorrow," Gottlieb wrote.

'High risk' foods include soft cheeses, sea food, custard-filled baked goods, some fruits and vegetables and baby formula, The New York Times reported. Lower risk foods include non-custard-filled baked goods, according to NBC.

Gottlieb told NBC last week he would attempt to recall about 10 percent of the food inspectors who had been furloughed since the government shutdown began December 22.

"We got an overwhelming response from our very dedicated and mission-driven field force who are coming back to work unpaid," he told NBC.

The FDA is responsible for inspecting food-producing facilities. It usually conducts about 160 inspections a month with a team of 5,000 inspectors. Gottlieb said about 700 were returning to work. In addition to restarting high-risk inspections today, the FDA also began sampling high-risk imported produce in the Northeast region on Monday, Gottlieb tweeted. The agency will also restart drug inspections.

"By next week we will have restarted all the medical product inspections that weren't covered by user fees that were shut down," he told NBC. "That includes things like compounding inspections."

Recalled workers will also assist with the monitoring of food-caused disease outbreaks, The New York Times reported.

Meanwhile, inspections of meat and some egg products, which fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have continued throughout the shutdown thanks to unpaid workers. Congress mandates that these inspections never cease, NBC reported.

Gottlieb told The New York Times that the shutdown had not interfered with many scheduled FDA inspections because it began over the holidays and not many inspections were scheduled for the second week of January. As the shutdown wore on, Gottlieb got permission from the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services to recall some employees, about 40 percent of whom had been furloughed.

About a third of FDA inspections involve high risk food, Gottlieb told The New York Times. The FDA is responsible for monitoring around 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, as well as international imports. It is responsible for some 80,000 food plants, inspecting around 10 percent each year.

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