The most urgent inspections would be at facilities where there have already been safety issues, such as factories with listeria or salmonella contamination or other hygiene problems. Next comes foods that are more prone to contamination.
“For example, cheese might be a high-risk food,” Gottlieb added. “Low-risk would be a bakery, so a facility that manufactures crackers – that would be low-risk.”
The Center for Science in the Public Interest expressed alarm. “We urge the FDA to publish more information about the impact of the shutdown on the safety of the food supply, including more about which types of inspection, import screening, and enforcement activities are considered critical and which have been suspended,” CSPI’s Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs Sarah Sorscher said in a statement.
Gottlieb is worried about hurting employees who have been furloughed. He has come up with one creative way to limit out-of-pocket expenses. Food inspectors who travel overseas use credit cards that are billed in their own names, and the staff are reimbursed later by the FDA. Foreign travel can rack up thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in charges quickly, so Gottlieb said he was working to change that billing so it goes straight to the agency.
But there’s another issue for inspectors, many of whom are not paid especially high salaries and who may be living paycheck to paycheck. FDA food inspectors often start at what is known as a GS-5 on the federal government pay scale — a job with a base pay of $30,000 to $37,000 a year.
“We want to protect the public and we will. But I am mindful of the impact that we have on the people of the agency,” Gottlieb said.
Workers who are furloughed can start applying for unemployment benefits, or even find other jobs to fill in while they are idled. They cannot do either if they are called back to work without pay, however. And it is unclear how long this shutdown will last or whether Congress will appropriate back pay for those kept home.
“We are trying to build accommodation in for people who have unusually difficult circumstances,” Gottlieb said.
The FDA takes care of most of the country’s food supply, but meat and some egg products are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Most of them are still on the job, the USDA said, because most of those inspections are paid for by industry user fees, but some are working without pay.
CSPI’s Sorscher said it is important to consider the impact on staff. “We are concerned about the strain on employees and morale,” she said.
“We don’t want the person inspecting our meat for disease and feces to be distracted by not being able to pay their bills. It is also very hard to get qualified people to work in a slaughterhouse, and many inspectors have advanced food safety or veterinary degrees and could get better-paying jobs elsewhere but choose to work for the government because of the sense of mission and stability,” she added.
“This shutdown could have long-term impacts on our workforce.”