The Food and Drug Administration is suspending routine surveillance inspections of U.S. facilities, citing concern for its staff and the state contractors who conduct the plant checks, the agency announced Wednesday as the COVID-19 crisis worsens across the United States.

“These are facility inspections the FDA traditionally conducts every few years based on a risk analysis,” FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said. “Importantly, all domestic for-cause inspection assignments will be evaluated and will proceed if mission-critical.” The inspections are typically conducted by employees of state agencies under contract with FDA.

“A ‘for-cause’ inspection [investigates] a specific problem that has come to FDA’s attention,” according to FDA.

FDA also said facilities would temporarily not be subject to unannounced inspections. 

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service emphasized that it is continuing with its meat, poultry, and processed egg inspection services.

“Safeguarding and ensuring the U.S. supply chain remains strong during these uncertain times is our top priority," the agency said in a statement. "Our front-line supervisors and district managers are working closely with state and local health authorities to handle situations as they arise. FSIS is prepared to be operationally nimble and to use all administrative means and flexibilities available to protect the health and safety of employees based on local public health recommendations. Planning for absenteeism is a part of normal FSIS operations. FSIS has a plan and authority to address staffing considerations and is prepared to act accordingly.”

FDA officials discussed what the agency has been doing to address food safety issues, on a teleconference Wednesday with stakeholders such as food companies. 

“The U.S. food supply remains safe and there are no food shortages,” said Frank Yiannas, FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response. Yiannas also said “there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19. This is not a foodborne, gastrointestinal virus.”

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Without minimizing the need for food manufacturing or distribution facilities to continue to engage in safe practices such as the cleaning of food contact surfaces, Yiannas said the virus is more likely to be transmitted person-to-person rather than by touching a surface or object that may contain the virus.

“This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” he said, adding that he does not anticipate food products would need to be recalled or withdrawn from the market because a worker in a food operation has contracted the virus.

Susan Mayne, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said facilities should “redouble their cleaning and sanitation efforts to control any risk that might be associated with workers who are ill, regardless of the type of virus or bacteria.”

Yiannas reaffirmed what others have told Agri-Pulse, that “retail supply chains remain strong” and there is no need to hoard food. Empty shelves do not indicate shortages, but an increase in demand, he said.

Yiannas, Mayne and Assistant Commissioner for Human and Animal Food Michael Rogers outlined measures FDA has taken to address issues and questions surrounding coronavirus, including:

  • The posting of a new set of Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19, which FDA is updating “as fast as we can,” Mayne said.
  • A temporary suspension of enforcement of supplier verification onsite audit requirements for receiving facilities and importers under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in response to the global pandemic of COVID-19. “FDA does not intend to enforce the onsite audit requirements if other supplier verification methods are used instead.”
  • The postponement of domestic routine surveillance inspections for this fiscal year.

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