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January 9, 2019, 18:59 GMT

By Maggie Fox

The current federal closure has put an end to most food safety inspections, but the Food and Drug Administration plans to resume at least some of them. To do this, the agency will have to force the dismissed workers to return without pay.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said he was trying to determine the most essential inspections, while ensuring that employees do not suffer too much.

"There is no question of whether things are going normally at the FDA," Gottlieb told NBC News.

"Things do not go as usual and we do not do everything we would do under normal circumstances. There are important things that we do not do.

This means that FDA inspectors do not look for salmonella in breakfast cereals, E. coli in romaine lettuce or Listeria in ice cream. Companies can still do their own checks, of course, and the FDA is still announcing these recalls.

Food inspection abroad also continues, almost as usual, as it is considered very important. But the FDA has virtually stopped inspecting domestic food production facilities, which could mean that threats to the public are not detected. "We are doing everything in our power to maintain our fundamental role in consumer protection. That's our goal, "Gottlieb said in an interview Tuesday night.

The question of who should stop operations at a government shutdown depends on funding. Some agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, received specific funds from Congress last year. But the FDA does not have it.

Some of the FDA's work, such as drug approvals, inspection of drug manufacturing facilities and regulation of tobacco products, is paid for through user fees. They are not very affected by the stop. But a large part of the budget is specifically affected by Congress, and she is waiting. Approximately 7,000 of the agency's 17,000 employees, or 41% of the staff, are on leave.

THREAD: Food Safety During Shutdown: We are taking steps to expand the scope of food safety monitoring inspections we conduct during shutdown to ensure we continue to inspect high-risk food facilities. 31% of our stocks of national inspections are considered high risk

– Scott Gottlieb, M.D. (@SGottliebFDA) January 9, 2019

Gottlieb wants to remind some of them to resume inspections of high-risk domestic facilities. "For me to do that, we would need to recall about 10% of our inspection force," said Gottlieb, estimating that the agency employs about 5,000 inspectors and conducts about 160 inspections per month.

"It's something we do not do right now. I think it's the right thing to do for public safety. "

The most urgent inspections would be carried out in installations where there have already been safety problems, such as factories contaminated with listeria or contamination with salmonella or other hygiene problems. Next come the foods most susceptible to contamination.

"For example, cheese could be a high-risk food," added Gottlieb. "It would be a low-risk bakery, so a facility that makes crackers – that would be a low risk."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has expressed concern. "We urge the FDA to release more information on the impact of the closure on food security, including on the types of inspection, filtering of imports and business activities. Application considered critical and having been suspended, "said the Deputy Director of CSPI. Regulatory Affairs Sarah Sorscher said in a statement.

Gottlieb fears injuring the employees who have been fired. He found a creative way to limit personal expenses. Food inspectors traveling abroad use credit cards billed in their name and staff are reimbursed later by the FDA. Trips abroad can quickly generate thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in fees, so Gottlieb said that he was working to change this billing so that it would be paid directly to the company. ;agency.

But there is another problem for inspectors, many of whom do not receive particularly high salaries and may live on a paycheck. FDA food inspectors often start with what is called a GS-5 on the federal government's pay scale – work with a base salary of between $ 30,000 and $ 37,000 a year.

"We want to protect the public and we will do it. But I am aware of the impact we have on people in the agency, "Gottlieb said.

Workers on leave can start to claim unemployment benefits, or even find another job to fill while they are inactive. They can not do it either, they are called back to work without pay. And we do not know how long this closure will last or whether Congress will decide to allocate salary arrears to people who have stayed at home.

"We are trying to build housing for people who live in exceptionally difficult conditions," Gottlieb said.

The FDA handles most of the country's food, but meat and some egg products are inspected by the Food Security and Food Inspection Department of the US Department of Agriculture. The USDA said that these inspectors are still employed but work without pay. This is because the law, as drafted by Congress, requires a continuous inspection of the USDA.

Sorscher of CSPI said that it was important to take into account the impact on the staff. "We are concerned about the pressure on employees and morale," she said.

"We do not want the person inspecting our meat for disease and excrement to be distracted by the inability to pay their bills. It is also very difficult to get qualified people to work in a slaughterhouse. Many inspectors have advanced degrees in food safety or veterinary medicine and could get better paid jobs elsewhere, but choose to work for the government because of their sense of mission and stability, "she added.

"This closure could have a long-term impact on our workforce."