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By Maggie Fox
The Food and Drug Administration will resume its inspections of food facilities on Tuesday, using unpaid staff, Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said Monday.
Gottlieb said hundreds of furloughed employees have agreed to come back and restart inspections that stopped with the federal government shutdown, which started on Dec. 22.
“It’s going to be hundreds of inspectors who were furloughed who are coming back to work,” Gottlieb told NBC News.
“Tomorrow we will restart high-risk food inspections.” High-risk foods include cheese, other dairy products and some fresh produce. Lower-risk foods include baked goods.
Gottlieb said last week he would try to recall about 10 percent of food inspectors. His staff had been calling furloughed staff to see who would or could come back to work, even though they are not getting paid.
“We got an overwhelming response from our very dedicated and mission-driven field force who are coming back to work unpaid,” he said.
The partial government shutdown hit the FDA hard. Much of the agency’s work is funded by industry user fees, and thus was not affected. But inspections of food-producing facilities is covered by taxpayer money and was cut off by the shutdown.
Gottlieb has said the agency employs roughly 5,000 inspectors, making about 160 inspections a month. He said he could not say precisely how many inspectors were coming back to work, but said it could be around 700.
“We restarted the sampling assignment today and tomorrow we will restart the high-risk food inspections,” Gottlieb said.
“By next week we will have restarted all the medical product inspections that weren’t covered by user fees that were shut down,” he added. “That includes things like compounding inspections.”
The FDA takes care of most of the country’s food supply, but meat and some egg products are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. These inspectors are still on the job, the USDA said, but are working without pay. It’s because the law, as written by Congress, requires continuous USDA inspection.
The FDA is required to inspect facilities that handle high-risk foods every three years. Facilities handling foods not deemed high-risk must be inspected every five years.