The real risk to consumers when we go without most FDA food inspections

After a tumultuous year with multiple recalls, consumers are wary. Add in the government shutdown complete with plenty of press coverage, and we see the confidence in our food supply system tank. Although the full impact of the government shutdown on food inspections is unknown, instability is at the root of real consumer risk.

Shaken consumer confidence during the shutdown

The initial storm broke in a January 9 tweet by Scott Gottlieb, M.D., commissioner of the FDA, where he said his agency wasn’t completing domestic food inspections due to the shutdown. He tweeted that “we’d typically do about 160 domestic food inspections each week, and about 1/3 of those would be considered high risk.”

Dr. Gottlieb listed high-risk products, like baby formulas, seafood and soft cheeses, as missing inspections. For the average consumer, this lengthy list added to their concern, and some took to Twitter to ask if any food was safe. Within minutes, an NBC news interview with Gottlieb surfaced with talks of recalling workers.

While some experts praised this decision, NBC quoted others like Sarah Sorscher, Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs at The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), saying, “We don’t want the person inspecting our meat… to be distracted by not being able to pay their bills.”

This argument sheds light on the genuine threat to consumers: a lack of confidence in the effectiveness of an already strained system.

Concern over issues with food recalls

On a good business day, the FDA faces ongoing staffing shortages and worry over budget cuts. Sarah Taber, a consultant whose company, Boto Waterworks, monitors fruit and vegetable facilities told Bloomberg  the FDA  hasn’t been doing “enough for decades.” With the average food inspector earning less than $40,000 per year, attracting quality applicants isn’t easy. Rising concerns over transparency in the food supply system add to the increasing uneasiness over the credibility of the inspections.

Consumers rely on regular reviews of at-risk facilities to prevent a problem before it reaches a critical level. In the most recent data from the FDA, hundreds of facilities were cited for pest contamination. Others were found with objectionable water and sanitation conditions. Dozens more were written up after inspectors visually observed employees eating food, chewing gum, drinking beverages or using tobacco in areas with exposed food, equipment or utensils. With the majority of inspections halted, this increases the likelihood of problems.

Thorough investigations help deliver the evidence for food recalls

The Center for Disease Control lists 24 foodborne disease outbreaks in 2018, the highest in more than a decade. Dr. Gottlieb credits this to “better technology than ever before to link outbreaks of human illness to a common pathogen.” However, without proper regulatory protections during a government shutdown, unknown threats abound.

If total food inspections drop in 2019, then we face shortfalls in consumer trust that will impact sales in several industries. For those in the foodservice industry, it makes transparency difficult yet vital. Add in a lapse in service, a backlog of high-risk inspections, and you have the perfect storm for a health outbreak.