As the partial government shutdown approaches the end of its fourth week, federal food safety officials are calling back furloughed workers to perform inspections for certain high-risk foods at manufacturing and other processing plants.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, issued a tweet on Monday, which indicates that the agency will be recalling several hundred inspectors back to work to perform critical surveillance of certain drugs and medical devices. However, these employees will be required to work without receiving scheduled paychecks.
Since the partial government shutdown began on December 22, the FDA has lost roughly 40% of its workforce due to employees being furloughedy. Although the first three weeks of the shutdown are expected not to have caused a major impact on the agency’s inspections, this past week the shutdown prevented the agency from performing approximately 160 inspections, according to Gottlieb.
There are approximately 80,000 food plants in the United States, with about one-tenth inspected each year. With the FDA being tasked to oversee, inspect and confirm 80% of the nation’s food supply is safe for consumption, working without 40% of its staff has limited the resources to accomplish these goals.
About 260 of the 400 recalled employees are handling medical product inspections, 90 are directed towards biologics, 70 for drugs and 100 for medical devices. The other 140 inspectors are fully dedicated to food products.
Gottlieb said several hundred workers being called back to work without pay will be directed to inspect and surveillance high-risk foods, including soft cheeses, seafood, custard-filled bakery products, some fruits and vegetables and baby formula.
In a previous tweet, Gottlieb said he is currently working on changing the employee travel expense billing structure. Currently, furloughed inspectors called back to work are required to use credit cards in their own names to pay for travel expenses, which could amount to thousands of dollars and take weeks to be later reimbursed. Gottlieb stated he is working to change that structure, where travel expenses are billed directly to the agency, so they do not impact the employee’s personal funds, which are already strained due to the lack of funding for paychecks.