In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to “flatten the curve,” the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is halting all routine surveillance inspections of facilities that manufacture food and other FDA-regulated products, the federal agency announced on March 18.
This change, which comes a week after the FDA announced the suspension of most foreign inspections, affects domestic inspections traditionally conducted every few years based on risk analysis. In lieu of these inspections, the FDA is considering other ways to conduct inspectional work while maintaining public safety and protecting both factory and FDA staff. “This can include, among other things, evaluating records in lieu of conducting an onsite inspection on an interim basis when travel is not permissible, when appropriate,” FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a statement.
Hahn said the FDA will continue to address critical for-cause inspections — those involving specific problems that have come to the FDA’s attention — and to respond to natural disasters, outbreaks, and other public health emergencies under its purview.
Routine inspections are just one part of all the necessary components that go into ensuring food safety: the duties carried out by plant workers, auditors, and inspectors. But, as H. Claire Brown writes for The Counter, the FDA’s decision to postpone inspections indefinitely “represents a fresh blow to an interconnected system of food safety checks that is already under immense pressure.”
Thanks to the coronavirus and social distancing measures, there may be fewer workers in plants; those who continue to show up may be tired or stressed, which could lead to more mistakes that slip through the cracks. Internal and third-party audits may also decline due to the pandemic. Add the suspension of routine inspections to the mix, and that leaves public health infrastructure as the last failsafe, typically in the form of monitoring for outbreaks of foodborne illness. But as the number of reported COVID-19 cases in the U.S. continues to rise, the vast majority of public health resources have been shifted to address the coronavirus crisis; how much can be left to detect foodborne illness outbreaks?
“What you’ve done is you’ve put the system under a huge amount of stress,” Barbara Kowalcyk, assistant professor of food safety and public health at Ohio State University, told The Counter. “So pretty much our failsafe with the public health department—I’m not going to say it’s non-existent, but I’m sure it’s greatly reduced.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which mainly oversees meat, poultry, and egg products, issued a statement on March 17 saying it would continue normal inspection services while working to ensure the safety of employees. (The Center for Food Safety recently sued the USDA over new pork safety inspection rules, passed under the Trump administration, that allows meat plant employees to check and sort hog carcasses while a reduced number of federal inspectors oversees from a distance.) But approximately 77 percent of the U.S. food supply — including dairy, seafood, produce, processed and packaged foods, bottled water, and shelled eggs — is regulated by the FDA. While there’s currently no evidence that COVID-19 is transmissible through food, and the FDA maintains that there are no shortages in the food supply, it doesn’t seem like the best time to scale back on routine inspections in a system that is already being strained to the limits.
- Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Focuses on Safety of Regulated Products While Scaling Back Domestic Inspections [FDA]
- Food and Drug Administration pauses routine food inspections for the indefinite future [The Counter]
- FDA suspends routine domestic food facility inspections [Agri-Pulse]
- FDA postpones some inspections of U.S. manufacturing facilities [Stat]