Former U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Deputy Commissioner for Food and Veterinary Medicine Stephen Ostroff shared his thoughts about the current partial government shutdown—currently in its 32nd day—and its impact on food safety, according to a report by the agricultural news publication The Fence Post. 

Ostroff’s comments were made at the International Dairy Foods Association’s 2019 Dairy Forum in Orlando, FL, this week. The original scheduled speaker—Agriculture Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Greg Ibach—could not attend the event due to the shutdown.

At the very end of his tenure, he was involved with making decisions about which FDA responsibilities would and would not be performed during the shutdown. Ostroff retired from FDA two weeks ago. Here are some of Ostroff’s quotes noted in The Fence Post’s reporting:

"I find the shutdown to be really, really unfortunate,"

FDA officials decided they had to continue responses to foodborne illness outbreaks, emerging food safety issues, and recalls and inspections of highest risk foods, Ostroff said.

Inspections of foods produced in overseas plants were continued because those inspection visits are so hard to set up and postponing them would have been so wasteful, he added. But he also noted that the inspectors who have undertaken them are not being paid on time.”

"What is not happening is a long list," he said, including low-risk domestic inspection, guidance to companies, regulation writing, decisions about petitions to declare foods as "GRAS" (generally recognized as safe), development of labels and standards of identity, as well as routine communications with consumers.”

Ostroff said there are "no meetings, no stakeholder engagement."

Work on Codex is continuing, but even if the shutdown ends soon FDA officials will be unlikely to attend meetings of international food regulators in February because there will not be time to set up their travel, he said.

“The shutdown is "like money going down the drain" for both the taxpayers and the industry, Ostroff explained.

"We will end up having to pay everybody for work that wasn't performed," he said, noting that there are estimates that the costs of the shutdown will be greater than the cost of the Mexican border wall "that has prompted it."

"This is going to cost you money," Ostroff told the dairy processing executives in the audience. "This will inevitably lead to delays and missed deadlines."

"Employee morale — everyone in my office was furloughed," he said.

Long term, however, Ostroff said his greatest concern is that the FDA will lose talented and skilled people and have a hard time recruiting replacements.

The shutdown, Ostroff said, may be an opportunity for companies to recruit FDA personnel who are disappointed they cannot do their jobs. But he added "you need the best people at your regulatory agencies."

Ostroff’s commentary did not include any information about his post-FDA career plans.

Frank Yiannas, formerly Walmart’s vice president for food safety, has taken over Ostroff’s previous role at FDA.

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