FDA halts food inspections

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Photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Old Time Meat & Deli Shop in Champaign, Ill., displays USDA inspected meat on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. All meat, poultry and egg products will still be inspected by the Food Safety and Inspection Service during the shutdown.

Imported food and routine food inspections are on hold because nearly half of the Food and Drug Administration staff were sent home Tuesday.

The administration’s shutdown plan stated that the FDA will no longer be able to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition and cosmetic regulation programs. It stated that the FDA will also have to cease routine inspections, hazard notification programs, laboratory research and the monitoring of imported foods.

“That is what this shutdown will cause,” said Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MN) in a speech to Congress on Tuesday. “Do we want to make sure we have a safe food supply? Well, today it is not quite as clear as it was yesterday.”

FDA generally inspects about 20,000 domestic and foreign food facilities each year, according to its most recent Congressional report. This averages about 1,600 inspected facilities per month.

While the FDA halts inspections, the Food Safety and Inspection Service will continue to check meat, eggs and poultry throughout the duration shutdown.

As of Tuesday, the FDA continued to update its recall notices online.

The FDA normally employs about 15,000 inspectors and other workers, who are responsible for protecting the health of American consumers. Among their duties, they enforce safety regulations for food, tobacco, dietary supplements, over-the-counter drugs and prescription medications.

The shutdown sent 7,000 of FDA workers home on furloughs, and the administration now operates at 55 percent capacity.

FDA inspections find ‘serious’ health violations

Last month, the FDA cited several food companies for health violations:

- In the Midwest, On Sept. 20, FDA officials sent a letter to Bumblefish in Kansas City, Mo., notifying the seafood producer it had “serious deviations” from seafood health regulations. Among its violations, FDA inspectors found that the seafood producer was not “controlling the hazard of Clostridium botulinum” – a bacterium that produces neurotoxins – in its sushi roll products. Inspectors noted that workers didn’t wear hair nets, either.

- On Sept. 12, FDA officials sent a letter to Noon Hour Food Products in Chicago notifying the producer that it worked “under insanitary conditions” that may be injurious to consumers’ health.  Among its violations, FDA inspectors found the producer didn’t put soap nor towels at sinks, and that it had holes in the ceiling above its packing tables. Inspectors also found “strip curtains in the cooler that contained a black substance,” an area where partially covered food is pushed through.

- On Sept. 13, FDA officials sent a letter to Samuel A. Fisher Farm in Myerstown, Pa., notifying the dairy operation that it violated health regulations by selling “an animal for slaughter as food that was adulterated.” It sold a cow with the high levels of the drug sulfadimethoxine, a drug used to treat urinary tract infections in animals.

To enforce these health standards, the FDA is annually funded billions of dollars from both the federal government and from violation fees.

For 2012, spending records show that the agency’s total budget was about $3.8 billion.

Of that, the government funded $2.5 billion and the FDA collected $1.3 billion from violation fees. Last year the FDA’s total budget was about $3.3 billion.

For 2014, the FDA requested $4.7 billion.

Food Safety and Inspection Services inspections continue

The Old Time Meat & Deli Shop in  Champaign, Ill., cooler holds USDA inspected meat on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. While meat, poultry and eggs will all still be inspected during the shutdown, other routine food inspections conducted by the FDA will stop.

Photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

The Old Time Meat & Deli Shop in Champaign, Ill., cooler holds USDA inspected meat on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. While meat, poultry and eggs will all still be inspected during the shutdown, other routine food inspections conducted by the FDA will stop.

Food Safety and Inspection Services, which is overseen by the USDA, was only forced to send about 1,200 of its 9,600 employees home. Throughout the shutdown, it will operate with a staff of about 8,400 employees, which is about 87 percent of its regular staff.

Unlike the FDA, The Food Safety and Inspection Service did not shut down on a larger scale because food and milk inspections are considered essential.

The agency will still enforce all aspects of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act and the Egg Products Inspection Act.

For each day of the shutdown, inspectors will still conduct daily inspections at food production sites and will still monitor any product testing at laboratories.

Other Department of Health and Human Services agencies also shut down

The FDA is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, which because of the shutdown had to furlough more than half of its total department staff of about 78,000 employees.

Consequently, other department agencies responsible for ensuring the well-being and health of Americans will also be extremely handicapped.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention oversees the prevention of disease and illness throughout the country. It had to send about 9,000 of its nearly 13,000 employees home, meaning it now operates at 32 percent of its regular capacity.

“CDC would be unable to support the annual seasonal influenza program, outbreak detection and linking across state boundaries using genetic and molecular analysis, continuous updating of disease treatment and prevention recommendations, and technical assistance, analysis, and support to state and local partners for infectious disease surveillance,” reported its contingency plan.

Health Resources and Services Administration provides access to health care and other services for people who are uninsured, isolated or medically vulnerable. It had to send about 1,100 of its nearly 2,000 employees home, meaning it now operates at 42 percent of its regular capacity.

Because of the shutdown, it will not be able to make payments to a program that funds children’s hospitals.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services helps administer health programs to elderly and low-income individuals. It had to send 3,800 of its 6,000 employees home, meaning it now operates at 35 percent of its regular capacity.

“CMS would be unable to continue discretionary funding for health care fraud and abuse strike force teams resulting in the cessation of their operations,” stated its contingency plan. “Fewer recertification and initial surveys for Medicare and Medicaid providers would be completed, putting beneficiaries at risk of quality of care deficiencies.”

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