Key Issues > Food Safety
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Food Safety

The patchwork nature of the federal oversight of food safety calls into question whether the government can plan more strategically to inspect food production processes, identify and react more quickly to any outbreaks of contaminated food, and focus on achieving results to promote the safety and integrity of the nation's food supply.

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The fragmented federal oversight of food safety has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources. The safety and quality of the U.S. food supply is governed by a highly complex system stemming from at least 30 laws that are collectively administered by 15 federal agencies. The two primary agencies are the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry, and processed egg products, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for virtually all other foods. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that was signed into law in January 2011 strengthens a major part of the food safety system. It shifts the focus of FDA regulators from responding to contamination to preventing it, according to FDA. While the law has several provisions that require interagency collaboration on food safety oversight, it does not apply to the federal food safety system as a whole. In 2015, the President proposed consolidating the food safety components at USDA and FDA into a single new agency responsible for food safety inspection and enforcement, and foodborne illness outbreak prevention and response.

FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety and proper labeling of more than 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, including an increasing volume of imported food. Beginning in 2008, FDA established foreign offices to help prevent unsafe products from reaching U.S. borders. The FDA foreign offices reported that building relationships with foreign counterparts and gathering and assessing information were among their top priorities. As directed by FSMA, foreign offices also inspected foreign food facilities. Under FSMA, FDA was to inspect at least 600 foreign food facilities in 2011 and, for each of the next 5 years, inspect at least twice the number of facilities inspected during the previous year. However, as shown in Figure 1 below, FDA is not keeping pace with the FSMA mandate.

USDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of poultry products. Poultry products contaminated with pathogens cause more deaths than any other commodity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports the U.S. food supply is one of the safest in the world, yet estimates that Salmonella and Campylobacter (disease-causing organisms, i.e., pathogens) contamination in food causes more than 2 million human illnesses per year. CDC coordinates with USDA and others on investigations of multistate foodborne outbreaks. According to CDC, determining the food source of human illness is an important part of improving food safety (see fig. 2, below). Since 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has taken a number of actions to reduce contamination from Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry (chicken and turkey) products. USDA's actions to reduce these pathogens include, for example, tightening existing standards limiting the allowable amount of Salmonella contamination in young poultry carcasses, implementing the first standards limiting Campylobacter contamination in young poultry carcasses in 2011, and developing an action plan detailing a priority list of actions, such as developing new enforcement strategies, to reduce Salmonella. More recently, in August 2014, USDA published its final rule to modernize poultry slaughter inspections, which according to the agency, will play a role in reducing Salmonella and other poultry pathogen contamination by allowing better use of agency resources, among other things.

Figure 1: FDA Inspections of Foreign Food Facilities Compared with FSMA Mandate

Figure 2: Foods Associated with One-Third of Salmonella Outbreaks, 2004 through 2008

Figure 2: Foods Associated with One-Third of Salmonella Outbreaks, 2004 through 2008

 

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Safety of Imported FoodFriday, February 27, 2015
  • portrait of Steve Morris
    • Steve Morris
    • Acting Director, Natural Resources and Environment
    • morriss@gao.gov
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