Food safety inspections by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have been halted since the government shutdown began on Dec. 22, but inspectors returned to work on Tuesday to allow the agency to resume inspections of certain high-risk foods.
While they’re still not being paid — and are operating at a shorter capacity than usual — 150 FDA staffers are being used to do food inspections of certain foods, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb wrote on Twitter Tuesday. Those foods include soft cheeses, seafood, custard-filled bakery products, some fruits and vegetables, and baby formula.
We re-starting high risk food inspections as early as tomorrow. We’ll also do compounding inspections this week. And we started sampling high risk imported produce in the northeast region today. We’ll expand our footprint as the week progresses. Our teams are working.
Still, food safety experts aren’t exactly thrilled. “Consumers still need to note a few considerations when it comes to food safety, as the number of inspections and resources had greatly decreased,” Darin Detwiler, PhD, director of the Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industries program at Northeastern University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
The FDA isn’t the only organization that inspects food, Detwiler points out: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service “plays a lead role in regulating meat, poultry, and egg products (dried, liquid, or frozen eggs; shell eggs fall under the FDA’s jurisdiction),” he says. And, according to the USDA’s FY 2019 contingency plan, about 11 percent of the staff that does these inspections are on furlough.
Food poisoning is serious: Each year, 48 million people get sick from food-borne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s why Detwiler recommends people do their best to avoid these foods that tend to be hotbeds for food-borne illness:
- Unpasteurized juices, ciders, or dairy products
- Raw or undercooked meat and poultry, eggs, and shellfish
- Store-bought salads (including ham, egg, tuna, chicken, potato, and macaroni)
- Refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods (including hot dogs and deli meats)
- Raw sprouts
- Any other uncooked and unwashed fruits and vegetables in general
“When you look at many of the recent outbreaks and recalls and take into consideration trends in terms of past foods behind illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths, these foods rise to the top,” Detwiler says. “Without the federal oversight, we are at increased risk, given the rapid movement of perishable foods to market.”
Here’s the thing: This can get really complicated from a regulatory oversight standpoint, Benjamin Chapman, PhD, an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Some foods may be inspected on a state level, while others may be inspected on a federal level, and it’s not the same across the board. Others, like unpasteurized juices, aren’t typically under FDA jurisdiction but may be if they’re packaged and cross state lines. “It’s not easy as a consumer to determine if the food is state or federally inspected food,” Chapman says.
“Some routine inspections may only be done annually or once every two years — the FDA doesn’t share a lot of that information,” he says. Just keep in mind that “the vast majority of food that we have on shelves is still being inspected by somebody,” Chapman says. “Having FDA routine inspection not be there is certainly not ideal and any time you can have more eyes on a facility, that’s only going to make food safer. But the food industry has the biggest responsibility for safety. They have internal audits and inspections. All of those create multiple snapshots of what’s happening.”
Detwiler stresses that the risks in these foods are always present, even with normal regulatory oversight. “This does not mean that we need to be afraid of foods, but it does deserve note that we can be more vigilant and make decisions that decrease the chance of becoming harmed by contaminated foods,” he says. People who are immunocompromised, pregnant, and young children should be especially careful, he adds.
Given that many foods come with some form of risk, there’s only so much you can do. “We cannot live in a plastic bubble and be afraid of everything we eat,” Detwiler says. Still, he adds, “we need to be proactive in our ability to make decisions to best protect ourselves and our family.”
Ultimately, you shouldn’t panic. “Many oversights are still there,” Chapman says. “We really don’t know what the impact is on removing these, but we do know is that more eyes are better than less.”