Foodborne illness investigations have slowed down and food recalls have plummeted to their lowest levels in years because of disruptions in America’s multi-layered food safety system caused by COVID-19. The pandemic has struck the system at every level — from the federal agencies tasked with stopping contaminated food before it leaves farms and factories to the state health departments that test sick residents for foodborne illnesses.
In March, The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced it would postpone in-person inspections of the nation’s food factories, canneries and poultry farms. As a result, the number of FDA inspections dropped from an average of more than 900 a month to just eight in April. FDA citations issued for unsafe conditions also tumbled from hundreds a month to nearly zero in April.
The number of product recalls followed suit. Companies primarily issue recalls themselves and report them to the FDA. Weekly reports from the FDA showed the number of recalls dropped from 173 in February to 105 in March to 70 in April. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) also oversees food recalls. Their numbers, too, dropped from an average of more than ten a month to an unprecedented zero in March and just two in April.
Some state health departments are so busy with COVID-19 that they’re struggling to keep up with the typical foodborne illness workload. Here are some of the ways COVID-19 has disrupted food inspections and recalls, and ultimately food safety in the US.
FDA Inspections Plummeting
Ordinarily, the FDA visits thousands of food production facilities each year to conduct safety inspections. Examples from recent inspections show troubling findings: “You did not exclude pests from your food plant to protect against contamination of food,” read one. “You did not take an adequate measure to protect against inclusion of metal or extraneous material in food,” read another.
But on March 18, the agency announced it would postpone almost all such inspections as employees began teleworking. The number of inspections and citations quickly plummeted. In 2018 and 2019, the FDA averaged about 900 inspections a month, leading to 600 citations. In March, the numbers fell to 307 inspections and 167 citations. In April, just eight inspections took place, leading to two citations.
Over the past two months, the FDA has modified several guidelines. The agency has eased rules ensuring the safety of consumer-grade eggs, requiring supplement manufacturers to report “adverse events,” and compelling food companies to audit food safety practices at ingredient suppliers.
Frank Yiannas, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Food and Policy Response defended the agency, saying it is using “layers” of protection that include modifying an algorithm to scrutinize food imports and enhancing remote inspections. The agency also continues to conduct “mission critical” in-person inspections.
“FDA believes these alternative activities strike the right balance,” Yiannas said, “between the realities of the unprecedented present situation in which certain travel is not possible yet still provide regulatory oversight, while protecting the health and well-being of our workforce and those working in regulated industry.”
Some companies also are continuing private audits of their factories, and companies are still legally responsible for addressing food safety risks internally. But what happens if private inspectors and staff also become impacted by COVID-19? This could lead to potential outbreaks that go undiscovered.
Meat Plants Packed with Risk
While the FDA has curtailed its in-person inspections of food factories, the USDA has remained on the job in the nation’s meat processing plants, where federal regulations require inspectors to be present at least once a day. But issues with the system are coming to the forefront. Last month, more than 1,000 inspectors were off the job after falling ill with COVID-19 or because they are considered high risk for medical complications from the disease.
The USDA says it has enough inspectors to cover all sites. But the agency has also issued an unprecedented number of “line speed waivers” that allow poultry plants to run at higher speeds with fewer inspectors. In April, the department granted 15 poultry plants the waivers, which according to the Federal Register, means they have to keep at least one line averaging above the standard production speed. The waivers mean fewer USDA inspectors are physically inspecting carcasses.
Proponents argue the companies still have to implement other safety checks, like taking microbial swabs of carcasses to look for contaminants like Salmonella. But to critics, the strain on meatpacking inspections could undercut safety.
Feedback Loop Broken
Another weak link in the food safety chain involves doctors, patients and health departments. Typically, outbreak investigations start at the local level, when a sick patient visits a doctor and a stool sample is taken. Those samples are then collected through a series of commercial and public health laboratories before being uploaded into a database.
But hospitals and health departments are understandably focused on COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that one in six Americans become ill from foodborne diseases each year. About 128,000 people end up hospitalized and 3,000 die.There are additional signs such shortfalls may be occurring.
On a national call with consumer groups last week, CDC officials said several state health departments reported trouble keeping up with stool sample testing and asked for federal support. One state requested further help with interviewing patients to determine what they ate.
Many experts said they believe the drop-off in sampling may be caused by Americans choosing to stay home rather than seek treatment and testing for stomach problems. There may also be changes to risk factors for foodborne illness, with less eating out at restaurants and more people eating out at home.
But we probably won’t have all the answers until after the pandemic has subsided. To fully understand the extent to which COVID-19 impacted the drop-off in inspections and recalls, an analysis of the entire food safety system must be done post-pandemic.