The GAO criticism echoes that of consumer groups -- such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) -- who have long called for a unified system of food safety regulation and for more resources to be devoted to the task. Such changes could increase the oversight focused companies -- but they could also make it easier to comply by consolidating regulation under one or more agencies.
The GAO called on legislators to radically amend the system, which the federal auditor said leaves the US food chain open to attack by terrorists. One solution is to consolidate regulatory insight.
"The current fragmented federal system has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources," the report stated. "GAO has recommended that Congress consider a fundamental re-examination of the system and other improvements to help ensure the rapid detection of and response to any accidental or deliberate contamination of food before public health and safety is compromised."
The new GAO report designates food safety as one of the 29 areas deemed to be at "high risk" and in need of reform. Any food contamination could undermine consumer confidence in the government's ability to ensure the safety of the US food supply, as well as cause severe economic consequences, the auditor said.
The report proposes that legislators enact comprehensive, uniform and risk-based food safety legislation; commission the National Academy of Sciences or a blue ribbon panel to conduct a detailed analysis of alternative food safety structures, and reconvene the President's Council on Food Safety to promote interagency coordination.
GAO reports are influential in the legislative process as the auditor is set up to provide an independent assessment of government operations.
The GAO warned that the "patchwork" nature of federal oversight opened the country up to a potential attack through the food chain and " 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."
Currently, the responsibility for food safety is split among 15 government agencies, which collectively administer at least 30 related laws. The two primary agencies are the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The agriculture department is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry and processed egg products. The FDA is responsible for virtually all other foods.
Meanwhile the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Department of Commerce conducts voluntary, fee-for-service inspections of seafood safety and quality. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the use of pesticides and maximum allowable residue levels on food commodities and
animal feed. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is responsible for coordinating agencies' food security activities.
The food safety system is further complicated by the subtle differences in food products that dictate which agency regulates a product along with the frequency of inspections, the GAO said. The differences can lead to inconsistency in regulatory practice between agencies.
As an example, a packaged ham-and-cheese sandwich could either be regulated by the FDA or the USDA depending on whether it consists of one slice of bread or two. The USDA inspects manufacturers of packaged open-face meat or poultry sandwiches while the FDA inspects manufacturers of packaged closed-face meat or poultry sandwiches.
"Although there are no differences in the risks posed by these products, USDA inspects wholesale manufacturers of open-face sandwiches sold in interstate commerce daily, while FDA inspects closed-face sandwiches an average of once every five years," the GAO said.
The report also noted that existing statutes give agencies different regulatory and enforcement authorities. For example, food products under FDA's jurisdiction could be marketed without the agency's prior approval. Meanwhile, food products under USDA's jurisdiction must generally be inspected and approved as meeting federal standards before being sold to the public.
Under current law, USDA inspectors must maintain continuous inspection at slaughter facilities and must examine each slaughtered meat and poultry carcass. They also visit each processing facility at least once during each operating day. In contrast, federal law does not mandate the frequency of inspections for foods under FDA's jurisdiction.
Federal agencies are also spending resources on overlapping food safety activities. For example the USDA and FDA both inspect shipments of imported food at 18 US ports-of-entry. However, the two agencies do not share inspection resources at the ports, the GAO reported.
The overlapping responsibility means USDA-import inspectors are assigned to and located at USDA-approved import inspection facilities, some of which handle and store FDA-regulated products.
Since the USDA has no jurisdiction over the FDA-regulated products, these may remain in storage for some time awaiting FDA inspection. In fiscal year 2003, USDA spent about $16 million on imported food inspections, while the FDA spent about $115 million.
Another area the GAO targets for reform is in the sensitive area of food recalls. The agency noted that recalls are voluntary and federal agencies responsible for food safety have no authority to compel companies to carry them out. The exception is infant formula, which the FDA has the authority to force a recall.
"These agencies do not know how promptly and completely companies are carrying out recalls, do not promptly verify that recalls have reached all segments of the distribution chain, and use procedures to alert consumers to a recall that may not be effective," the GAO stated.
American Meat Institute (AMI) president and chief executive Patrick Boyle said the organisation agreed that food safety resources are not allocated equally and that better coordination between federal agencies is needed.
"Generally, we welcome increased coordination among federal agencies that will make meaningful improvements in the safety and security of the food supply," he said in a statement to the media. "Given the demonstrated food safety progress that has been made in the meat and poultry industry in collaboration with USDA, the meat and poultry industry will approach any efforts to reallocate resources or reorganize federal oversight with both an open mind and a heavy dose of caution. e want to be sure such changes will accelerate – and not derail – food safety progress."
About 76 million people contract a food-borne illness in the US each year, leading to 5,000 deaths and 325,000 requiring hospitalization, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As agriculture is the largest industry and employer in the US and generates about $1 trillion in economic activity annually, about 13 percent of the gross domestic product, the potential for damage is large, the GAO said.
For example, industry representatives estimate losses from the recent California spinach E. coli outbreak to range from $37m to $74m.