Some FDA employees are back at work, without pay. There's concern over who is watching production facilities.

By Zee Krstic
January 23, 2019
Getty: Congressional Quarterly / Contributor

On a press call earlier this morning, Steven Mandernach, the executive director of the Association of Food & Drug Officials (AFDO), wanted to be clear that food for sale at grocery stores and restaurants is still being inspected during the current government shutdown.

Mandernach explained that the Food and Drug Administration regularly relies on state inspection agents, who are not bankrolled by the federal budget, to conduct safety checks on the items being sold. In fact, state agencies generally complete anywhere between 60 and 70 percent of the work needed to collect data for the FDA.

As Bloomberg reports, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has called federal safety agents back to work despite the continuing government shutdown and lack of funding—Gottlieb said that some staff (about 200 out of 550 total) are continuing to work on inspections, processing imports, and other operations.

That causes concern for Mandernach, despite the fact that state agents are still on the case—the FDA is in charge of regulating more than just food quality, and state agents aren't able to effectively govern production facilities at this point.

"Right now, high-risk establishments are a priority," Mandernach explained. "We are not doing low-risk establishments." However, Mandernach admitted that the risk level of different establishments may change: "They don't remain static. Sometimes, you walk into those facilities and it's completely changed—it's a nightmare."

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State employees are able to assist federal agencies in the case of a national recall or outbreak, and Mandernach says the FDA's handle on the safety of medical products is less impacted by the current shutdown.

But the biggest concern for professionals like Mandernach is that the infrastructure to catch issues at the production level isn't fully functional right now: "Are things clean and are we identifying the hazards in the plants? Recent outbreaks are coming in due to failures in the process, and not necessarily the cleanliness [of the product]."

Another aspect of the current government shutdown is that trainings and new strategies—like a system designed to better monitor fresh produce—have stalled. Mandernach says that current trainings have been cancelled, and new processes mandated under the Food Safety Modernization Act aren't being prioritized as resources aren't available.

Mandernach was also clear that morale among FDA employees is extremely low: there's concern that asking professionals to continue to work without pay may lead to staff defections, especially if the current shutdown extends weeks—or months—into February and beyond.

"We’re deeply grateful for the FDA professional staff that continue to carry on this mission unpaid, while also incurring expenses on their personal government credit cards for travel,” Gottlieb wrote on Twitter. “We’re doing everything we can to support them as they protect American consumers."

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