COVID-19 has already caused massive disruptions to how restaurants do business and how consumers shop, not to mention where and what we eat. Now, a recent decision by the Food and Drug Administration to scale back inspections could potentially have public health implications beyond the end of the current crisis.
On March 18, the FDA announced it has “temporarily postponed all domestic routine surveillance facility inspections,” which are “traditionally conduct[ed] every few years based on a risk analysis.” This decision is part of the organization’s broader efforts to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 cases, a process which will also require all of the FDA’s eligible employees to begin working remotely. In light of restrictions on travel, the FDA shut down its inspections of foreign facilities earlier in March.
The FDA says it will continue to evaluate the need for “for-cause” inspections and “proceed if mission-critical.” But the move does strip away a major line of defense when it comes to ensuring the products under the FDA’s purview remain safe for human consumption.
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The elimination of routine inspections comes at a difficult time for producers, as facilities may be shorter-staffed and their employees overworked. As The Counter points out, some of the third-party inspections done by grocery stores and other buyers might also be scaled back amidst the current crisis. While it may not lead to situations where producers and manufacturers knowingly flout the rules, mistakes could be more likely than usual to slip through the cracks before they’re caught.
While the FDA has scaled back its normal inspections, it’s worth noting that the US Department of Agriculture, the government organization tasked with evaluating meat, poultry, and eggs, will continue its inspections as normal. It’s also important to point out that there’s no known evidence that the Coronavirus is transmissible through food. But with roughly 77 percent of the country's food supply subject to FDA regulation and inspection, it’s in everyone’s long-term interest for the organization to resume its regular round of inspections as soon as it’s deemed safe to do so.
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