FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, M.D. recently announced that food safety inspections will resume in July, but inspectors will be given leeway to accommodate the coronavirus pandemic. Inspections will be prearranged by appointments. The agency suspended routine inspections in late March as a result of the pandemic response, which closed down much of the country.
USDA/FSIS has continued to provide inspection services for eggs, meat and poultry throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, with a significant number of establishments involved in outbreak clusters and periodic shutdowns.
The “White House Guidelines for Opening Up America Again” calls for the FDA to send out investigators for on-site inspections by the week of July 20, using the COVID-19 Advisory Rating system, which utilizes state and national data about infection rates to determine the regions where enforcement can resume.
In a July 10 FDA statement Hahn noted, “resuming prioritized domestic inspections will depend on the data about the virus’ trajectory in a given state and locality, and the rules and guidelines that are put in place by state and local governments.”
One of the most significant modifications for domestic inspections in the announcement is that they will be pre-announced to FDA-regulated businesses. “This will help assure the safety of the investigator and the firm’s employees, providing the safest possible environment to accomplish our regulatory activities, while also ensuring the appropriate staff is on-site to assist FDA staff with inspection activities,” Hahn said. Previously, most inspections were unannounced.
It’s not entirely clear how FDA will use the White House guidelines to determine where they can schedule inspections. There is mention of a prioritization mechanism that will identify high-risk operations, but that has traditionally been part of FDA’s approach to inspections.
The CDC published phased guidelines for states to follow in reopening, which are referred to in the announcement. The guidelines document outlines the gating criteria for states, but published versions do not mention inspection requirements. Many states began reopening without meeting all of the gateway criteria for Phase 1, and continued to accelerate reopening activities in a way that makes it unclear which phase criteria they may have actually met when compared to the phase under which they claim to be operating.
Further complicating the safety issue is the recent rising number of COVID-19 cases that is causing some states to pause or rollback reopening activities. Since publishing the announcement, several states have emerged as new COVID-19 hot spots, including Texas, Arizona and Florida; In addition, Florida has surpassed New York in total cases. California, another food producing state heavily affected by the pandemic, is seeing a significant increase in cases and is considering issuing new shelter-in-place orders. It was recently reported that CDC has identified 21 states as “Red Zones”, with at least 11 states on the verge of surging cases.
In other words, with the virus on the rise, there may not be a significant number of inspections actually performed, regardless of whether or not inspections have technically resumed, simply because there just isn’t a safe way to send inspectors out.
The FDA has also published the “New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint”, which includes ways the agency could use technology to support compliance activities. There may be an opportunity for the FDA to implement new tools such as remote verification in lieu of onsite inspections, but that remains to be seen. Among such tools, remote audit pilots were recently completed and those results will be available for public presentation at the end of August.
In the short term, should FDA determine you are an inspection candidate, you will contacted in advance to schedule a day and time.