The FDA suspension alone doesn’t put us at more risk, one expert says, but the entire system is facing pressure.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated July 09, 2020

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused difficulties for everyone, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is no exception. Both food and drugs (along with medical devices and everything else the FDA handles) are all as necessary as ever during a pandemic, and the FDA’s recent press announcements show just how much the agency is juggling—everything from facilitating access to ventilators to helping with veterinary telemedicine.

However, last Wednesday, the FDA made an announcement that may leave some consumers more worried in these already troubling times: “For the health and well-being of our staff and those who conduct inspections for the agency under contract at the state level, and because of industry concerns about visitors, we have temporarily postponed all domestic routine surveillance facility inspections,” the FDA said. This action is on top of “postponing most foreign facility inspections,” which was announced earlier in the month.

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For consumers, it’s easy to see why this could be concerning. Beyond fending off the coronavirus, do Americans now need to be more vigilant against foodborne illnesses, too? And if you do get severely sick, will already-swamped medical staff be available to help?

“I want to assure the American public that we have full confidence in the safety and quality of the products we all use every day and that the FDA will continue to leverage all available authorities to continue to ensure the integrity of the products we regulate,” wrote FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn. “Importantly, during this interim period we’re evaluating additional ways to conduct our inspectional work that would not jeopardize public safety and protecting both the firms and the FDA staff… In fact, inspections are just one part of a robust and multi-pronged approach to overseeing the safety and quality of FDA-regulated products.”

Specifically, Hahn explains that “mission-critical” inspections will continue, and that the agency will continue “evaluating records in lieu of conducting an onsite inspection.” Additionally, he asks for the food industry to uphold their end of the bargain, too. “We also believe FDA-regulated firms understand and appreciate their shared responsibility to ensure the integrity of the supply chain and we will continue to communicate with them during this time to underscore this partnership. In fact, in the last fiscal year, the overall domestic violation rate was only about 5 percent.”

That said, the FDA is unlikely to send out a press release entitled, “We’re screwed.” And as Eater points out, about 77 percent of our food supply is regulated by the FDA—pretty much “everything we eat except for meat, poultry, and some egg products,” as the agency puts it. So does this mean more problems will slip through the cracks?

As the FDA writes, these facility inspections are only conducted “every few years based on a risk analysis”—so it’s not like some FDA guy used to be inspecting every tomato and now he’s working from home. But at the same time, if these inspections didn’t offer some benefit, why do them at all?

“In food safety, just like anything, when you’re dealing with risk, you want to take a multi-hurdle approach. There’s not one thing, not a panacea that’s going to prevent an outbreak,” Barbara Kowalcyk, assistant professor of food safety and public health at Ohio State University, told The Counter. She also explains that private inspectors from buyers like grocery stores are actually more common and sometimes more stringent than the government. However, she says the problem is that these private visits will likely become less frequent as well for the same reasons the FDA is cutting back—health concerns. “What you’ve done is you’ve put the system under a huge amount of stress,” she added. “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.”

To put it in terms of the coronavirus outbreak itself, if just one person doesn’t practice social distancing, that’s relatively unlikely to cause a major spread of the virus. But if lots of people don’t practice social distancing, then that collectively becomes a problem. Likewise, a reduction in FDA inspections alone seems unlikely to cause a problem, but assuming COVID-19 causes a reduction in multiple safety nets, that could be an issue as this pandemic continues to progress.