Wednesday, March 02, 2011

New GAO Report Calls For Creation Of A Single Federal Food Safety Agency

On Tuesday, the General Accountability Office (GAO) released its first annual report to Congress to identify federal programs, agencies, offices and initiatives that have overlapping goals or activities. The report began with a look at the inefficiency of supporting 15 different federal food safety agencies to collectively administer at least 30 food-related laws, and called for the creation of a single federal agency to monitor food safety. That's something that advocates and a bipartisan group of lawmakers have been calling for for years.

"Fragmented food safety system has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient uses of resources," GAO reported. "The Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Food and Drug Administration are the primary food safety agencies, but 15 agencies are involved in some way."

In fiscal year 2009, budget obligations for USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and FDA totaled more than $1.6 billion. The uptick in imported foods, which have an inspection rate of about 1 percent, was noted as a major problem.

>Download "Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue," Full Report {PDF} and Summary.

President Obama referenced the problem of multiple agencies regulating food in his State of the Union Address, when he made a cute but timely joke about the fact that he can't keep track of which agency regulates Salmon. The GAO report noted that while the President's Food Safety Working Group, established in 2009 and co-chaired by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, has made some progress in collaborating in certain areas that cross regulatory jurisdiction, its future is uncertain.

The report said that GAO has noted the fragmented nature of the federal food safety oversight system for more than a decade. It noted last summer's recall of a half billion eggs for Salmonella contamination as an example of how federal agencies are inefficient and repeating each others' work:

"FDA is generally responsible for ensuring that shell eggs, including eggs at farms such as those where the outbreak occurred, are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled and FSIS is responsible for the safety of eggs processed into egg products. In addition, while USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service sets quality and grade standards for the eggs, such as Grade A, it does not test the eggs for microbes such as Salmonella. Further, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service helps ensure the health of the young chicks that are supplied to egg farms, but FDA oversees the safety of the feed they eat."

Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn (R) was the sponsor of the legislation that called for the GAO report, and he's also the fellow who spent a good deal of time blocking the passage of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which President Obama signed into law in January, after it was passed during the lame duck session of Congress. The sweeping $1.4 billion measure modernizes the nation's food safety system to better prevent foodborne illness and better respond to disease outbreaks. It has not yet been funded. Click here for a summary of the legislation.

More from the GAO report:

"Fragmented food safety system has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient uses of resources. The Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Food and Drug Administration are the primary food safety agencies, but 15 agencies are involved in some way."

"USDA is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry, processed egg products, and catfish and FDA is responsible for virtually all other food, including seafood."

"Three major trends also create food safety challenges: (1) a substantial and increasing portion of the U.S. food supply is imported, (2) consumers are eating more raw and minimally processed foods, and (3) segments of the population that are particularly susceptible to food-borne illnesses, such as older adults and immune-compromised individuals, are growing."

"Oversight is also fragmented in other areas of the food safety system. For example, the 2008 Farm Bill assigned USDA responsibility for catfish, thus splitting seafood oversight between USDA and FDA. In September 2009, GAO also identified gaps in food safety agencies' enforcement and collaboration on imported food. Specifically, the import screening system used by the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) does not notify FDA's or FSIS's systems when imported food shipments arrive at U.S. ports."

"Without access to time-of-arrival information, FDA and FSIS may not know when shipments that require examinations arrive at the port, which could increase the risk that unsafe food could enter U.S. commerce. GAO recommended that the CBP Commissioner ensure that CBP's new screening system communicates time-of-arrival information to FDA's and FSIS's screening systems and GAO continues to monitor their actions."

*Photo by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama