Government Shutdown: FDA Not Inspecting Food

Tony Corbo explains why the government shutdown threatens public health.


The majority of FDA food inspectors have been deemed nonessential under the government shutdown, according to a Department of Health and Human Services memo, and have been furloughed.

Meat inspections and import inspections will continue, but the furlough of FDA inspectors still poses a significant public health.

“The fact that those inspections are not going on, even though the inspection frequency is not all that great—the fact that those inspections are not going on may cause consumers to be at greater risk for food-borne illness outbreaks here in the United States,” says Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food & Water Watch.

Corbo also described the FDA’s food inspection practices before the shutdown as “relatively weak,” in comparison with the “continuous inspection model” of the USDA.

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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Due to the government shutdown, some FDA food inspectors are furloughed. Meat inspections will continue, but according to a Department of Health and Human Services memo, the majority of FDA food inspectors have been deemed nonessential.

Now joining us to discuss all this is Tony Corbo. He is the senior lobbyist for the food campaign at Food & Water Watch. He is responsible for food-related legislative and regulatory issues that come before Congress and the executive branch.

Thanks for joining us, Tony.

TONY CORBO, SENIOR LOBBYIST, FOOD & WATER WATCH: Well, thanks for having me on.

DESVARIEUX: So, Tony, can you give us a sense of what percentage of these FDA food inspectors had been furloughed?

CORBO: Well, it’s a substantial number. Those inspectors who normally will do in-plant inspections, both domestically and abroad–you know, they do send inspectors abroad to look at foreign establishments that export food to the United States–those inspections have stopped.

What is going on, however, is there are approximately 700 employees who have a role in import inspections at the ports of entry. There are some 300 ports of entry that FDA is responsible for providing oversight for food imports. So those inspections are still going on.

But, you know, in terms of, you know, trying to prevent problems from reaching our shores or preventing problems from occurring domestically, the inspections that would normally occur in actual food establishments are not going on.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. So these inspections are not going on. What are the risks of these inspections not happening? I mean, it sounds pretty obvious, but can you just paint a picture for our viewers?

CORBO: Well, the whole purpose, especially since the Congress passed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, was to set up a system that would prevent foodborne illness. And so an inspection frequency was established in that law that essentially said that for plants that either produce high-risk foods or have had a history of bad compliance with food safety standards, FDA would inspect those facilities once every three years. For those low-risk plants, it would be every five years.

The fact that those inspections are not going on, even though the inspection frequency is not all that great, the fact that those inspections are not going on may cause consumers to be at greater risk for foodborne illness outbreaks here in the United States.

DESVARIEUX: You mentioned the inspection frequencies are not that great. How would you describe the FDA’s food inspection practices before the shutdown?

CORBO: Well, they were relatively weak. You know, before Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, FDA was averaging once every five to ten years to visiting domestic food establishments here in the United States, and they were virtually doing none abroad of food establishments that were exporting food to the United States. Since the enactment of the law, there’s this new inspection frequency that says that FDA should visit the high-risk plans once every three years.

Now, you compare that to USDA that regulates meat, poultry, and egg products, that is a continuous inspection model. Most of those–all of those inspectors are on a job now. They’re not being paid over at USDA, but they are working in those meat, poultry, and eggs products plants right now.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Tony.

CORBO: Thank you very much.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.