Federal Food Safety and Security System:

Fundamental Restructuring Is Needed to Address Fragmentation and Overlap

GAO-04-588T: Published: Mar 30, 2004. Publicly Released: Mar 30, 2004.

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The safety of the U.S. food supply is governed by a highly complex system of more than 30 laws administered by 12 agencies. In light of the recent focus on government reorganization, it is time to ask whether the current system can effectively and efficiently respond to today's challenges. At the request of the Subcommittee on Civil Service and Agency Organization, we reviewed and summarized our work on the safety and security of the food supply regarding (1) the fragmented legal and organizational structure of the federal food safety system, (2) the consequences of overlapping and inconsistent inspection and enforcement, and (3) options for consolidating food safety functions.

As we have stated in numerous reports and testimonies, the federal food safety system is not the product of strategic design. Rather, it emerged piecemeal, over many decades, typically in response to particular health threats or economic crises. The result is a fragmented legal and organizational structure that gives responsibility for specific food commodities to different agencies and provides them with significantly different authorities and responsibilities. The existing food safety statutes create fragmented jurisdictions between the two principal food safety agencies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). As a result, there are inconsistencies in the frequency of the agencies' inspections of food facilities and the enforcement authorities available to these agencies. In short, which agency has jurisdiction to regulate various food products, the regulatory authorities they have available to them, and how frequently they inspect food facilities is determined by disparate statutes or by administrative agreement between the two agencies, without strategic design as to how to best protect public health. In many instances, food processing facilities are inspected by both FDA and USDA. Furthermore, federal food safety efforts are based on statutory requirements, not risk. For example, funding for USDA and FDA is not proportionate to the amount of food products each agency regulates, to the level of public consumption of those foods, or to the frequency of foodborne illnesses associated with food products. A federal food safety system with diffused and overlapping lines of authority and responsibility cannot effectively and efficiently accomplish its mission and meet new food safety challenges. These challenges are more pressing today as we face emerging threats such as mad cow disease and the potential for deliberate contamination of our food supply through bioterrorism. Therefore, fundamental changes are needed. First, there is a need to overhaul existing food safety legislation to make it uniform, consistent, and risk based. Second, consolidation of food safety agencies under a single independent agency or a single department is needed to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the current federal food safety system. Integrating the overlapping responsibilities for food safety into a single agency or department can create synergy and economies of scale, as well as provide more focused and efficient efforts to protect the nation's food supply.

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matters for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: To provide more efficient, consistent, and effective federal oversight of the nation's food supply, Congress may wish to consider enacting comprehensive, uniform, and risk-based food safety legislation.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Several food safety bills have been introduced in Congress that would provide a more efficient, consistent, and effective oversight of the nation's food supply. The Senate-passed version of the omnibus farm bill (H.R. 2419)would establish a Congressional Bipartisan Food Safety Commission to recommend statutory changes to modernize the food safety system and ways to harmonize food safety requirements across agencies. The language provides extensive guidance on commission membership and on the programs to be examined, sets timelines for completion, and provides $3 million annually in funding. owever, as of September 2008, Congress had yet to passes any of these bills. In addition, H.R. 1148/S. 654 also would authorize a new food safety system to be based on a comprehensive analysis of food hazards. They would require the registration and regular inspections of all establishments (except farms, fishing vessels that do not process food, and retail establishments), which would have to follow process controls tied to science and health-based regulations, including performance standards.

    Matter: To provide more efficient, consistent, and effective federal oversight of the nation's food supply, Congress may wish to consider establishing a single, independent food safety agency at the Cabinet level.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congress is considering several bills that would establish a single, independent food safety agency. H.R. 1148 and S. 654 Safe Food Act of 2007 (DeLauro/Durbin). These bills would establish a new independent Food Safety Administration to administer and enforce all federal food safety laws. The bill would require: (1) a national food safety program based on an analysis of the food hazards; (2) standards for processors of food and food establishments; (3) a certification system for foreign governments or food establishments seeking to import food; (4) a system for tracing food and food producing animals from point of origin to retail sale; (5) maintaining an active surveillance system of food, food products, and epidemiological evidence; (6) a sampling program to monitor contaminants in food; (7) an analysis of hazards in the food supply; (8) a national public education campaign on food safety; and (9) research relating to food safety.

    Matter: If the Congress does not opt for an entire reorganization of the food safety system, it may wish to consider modifying existing laws to designate one current agency as the lead agency for all food safety inspection matters.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As of September 2008, Congress had not opted for an entire reorganization of the food safety system, but is considering the establishment of a Congressional Bipartisan Food Safety Commission to recommend statutory changes to modernize the food safety system and ways to harmonize food safety requirements across agencies (H.R. 2419). The recommendations of such commission could include designating one current agency as the lead agency for all food safety inspection matters.

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