GAO Takes on Challenge of Defragging the U.S. Food Safety System … Again
Updated: Nov 22, 2018
The GAO is at it again, looking at the potential for a single food safety agency. But this time they are asking some different questions. What they were asking is whether the current U.S. food safety system is too fragmented? Are 30 federal laws administered by 16 federal agencies supplemented by the activities and laws of more than 3,000 state, local, tribal and territorial agencies too many? Can the system be improved?
While not going quite so far as to recommend the creation of a single federal agency for food safety, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has stated that it believes the federal food safety system can be improved through the development of a "national strategy." The recommendation was made in GAO's January Report to Congressional Requesters "Food Safety: A National Strategy Is Needed to Address Fragmentation in Federal Oversight," in which it "identified the development and implementation of a national strategy for food safety as a first step toward improving the federal food safety oversight system."
GAO compiled the report in response to a Senate request to examine efforts toward and options for addressing fragmentation in the federal food safety oversight system. As such, it evaluated the extent to which the Office of Management & Budget (OMB), Health & Human Services (HHS), and USDA have addressed previous GAO recommendations; included a review of past actions taken by these agencies; and assessed actions which could be taken to improve the federal food safety oversight system.
As indicated by the first two items noted of the previous paragraph, none of this is new. For more than four decades, GAO has reported on the fragmented federal food safety oversight system, and food safety has been on GAO’s list of high-risk areas since 2007. It has even identified options for reducing this fragmentation as well as the overlap in food safety oversight, including establishing a single food safety agency; a food safety inspection agency; a data collection and risk analysis center; a coordination mechanism led by a central chair; a Congressional assessment of the need for comprehensive, uniform, risk-based food safety legislation or amending FDA and USDA authorities; and the joint Congressional/Executive Branch development of a government-wide performance plan for food safety.
To develop its recommendations for this report to Congress, GAO convened an expert meeting; reviewed relevant laws, regulations, prior reports, National Academies reports, and other relevant documents; and interviewed agency officials. The two-day meeting included 19 former federal food safety officials and representatives from food-related industries, research organizations, state agencies, foreign food safety agencies, academia, and advocacy groups. The goal was to discuss the fragmentation and suggest actions for improvement.
Among the issues brought forth as challenges (besides the number of agencies involved) were:
FDA and FSIS differing statutory authorities.
Inspection differences in which FDA frequency is focused on associated risk while USDA/FSIS examines the carcasses/parts of covered animals and all processed food products.
Issues of resource allocation not necessarily connected to risk:
FSIS oversees 20% of the food supply but receives nearly the same amount of funding as FDA which is responsible for 80%.
FSIS continuous inspection requirements may mean too many resources are used to inspecting low-risk food processing facilities.
One example that was given was that of pizza: A facility producing cheese pizza is regulated by FDA, so may be inspected once every 5 years. But a facility producing pepperoni pizza, regulated by FSIS, is inspected daily. The risk of foodborne pathogens related to both is low because the pizzas are cooked.
It certainly sounds as if the group that met went over the same old ground and reiterated the same old issues – so there is nothing new there. But the outcome of the meeting was agreement that there is a compelling need to develop a national strategy and the identification of five key elements that should be included (which GAO also noted as being consistent with characteristics it has identified as desirable):
Purpose: define the problem; develop a mission statement; identify goals.
Leadership: establish sustained leadership at the highest level of the administration with authority for implementation and accountability for progress; identify roles and responsibilities involving all stakeholders.
Resources: identify staffing; identify funding requirements and sources.
Monitoring: establish milestones for time frames, baselines, and metrics to monitor progress; allow for flexibility to implement needed changes.
Actions: include short- and long-term actions focused on outbreak prevention
While the group did not specify who should lead the national strategy, GAO stated that past efforts to develop high-level strategic planning for food safety have depended on leadership from entities within the Executive Office of the President (EOP), such as the Domestic Policy Council (DPC), the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and OMB.
From the results of the meeting along with its research and additional interviews, GAO concludes the report with the recommendation that the appropriate entities within the EOP, in consultation with stakeholders, develop a national strategy that states the purpose of the strategy, establishes high-level sustained leadership, identifies resource requirements, monitors progress, and identifies short- and long-term actions to improve the food safety oversight system.
This, it said, could then provide the framework for considering organizational changes, making resource decisions, addressing the recommendation for a government-wide plan, consideration for leadership and planning, and criteria for removing federal food safety oversight from GAO's High-Risk List.
When provided with a draft of the report, HHS, OMB, and the Domestic Policy Council did not comment on the recommendation. USDA disagreed with the need for a national strategy but cited factors to consider should changes be proposed. GAO believes the recommendation should be implemented.
I have been in favor of a single food safety agency for a long time, but recognize that it is not likely to happen any time soon. Absent a single agency, having a national strategy makes a lot of sense. It is a little disconcerting, but not totally surprising, that USDA felt a national strategy was not needed. Every food company has to manage food safety based on risk, it is the only way that makes sense economically. FDA does the same, and FSMA clearly emphasizes that approach. USDA, on the other hand, has never been too keen on adopting a clear risk-based approach. If the White House were to look at optimal ways to manage food safety resources they would support the need for a risk-based national strategy.
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