Commissioner Gottlieb hopes to get “hundreds” of inspectors back on the job.

By Mike Pomranz
January 15, 2019
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In one very important regard, the term “government shutdown” is a bit of a misnomer. Though the shutdown affects 800,000 federal workers, only about 380,000 of those employees have actually been furloughed; the other 420,000 are still working, just without pay — meaning the situation is more like a “government stops paying its bills” than a complete “shutdown.” For that hardworking half of the government, their jobs were deemed too important to be put on leave — but then again, determining what’s important isn’t always cut and dry. For instance, the FDA chose to continue some operations, like investigating outbreaks and inspecting foreign goods, but suspended others, like its routine domestic inspections. The move left some observers skeptical as inspections are one of the first lines of defense against foodborne illnesses. Even Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said last week that he was hoping to address the issue.

And he has. Yesterday, Gottlieb announced that at least some of these inspections would resume work starting today. “The response from our outstanding field force and inspectorate has been overwhelming and outstanding. They're among the finest, most dedicated professionals in our federal workforce and we're grateful for their service,” Gottlieb posted on Twitter. “We re-starting high risk food inspections as early as [Tuesday].  We'll also do compounding inspections this week. And we started sampling high risk imported produce in the northeast region [Monday]. We'll expand our footprint as the week progresses. Our teams are working.”

He then reserved a third and final tweet to further praise these employees. “This work is being done by an inspectorate that's largely going unpaid,” Gottlieb continued. “These men and women are the tip of the spear in our consumer protection mission. They're the very front line. And they're on the job. The entire nation owes them gratitude. I'm inspired by their dedication.”

In a talk with NBC News, Gottlieb specified that the FDA employs about 5,000 inspectors, and “hundred” who had been furloughed would be returning to work this week — potentially as many as 700. (Ostensibly, since other types of inspections have been ongoing since the December 22 shutdown began, many inspectors never were off the job to begin with.) NBC also clarified that “high risk” food included cheese, other dairy products, and some fresh produce. Meanwhile, lower-risk foods like baked goods will probably continue to not see routine inspections until after the shutdown ends — though these facilities are only required to be inspected once every five years.

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