The establishment of a Food Safety Working Group in 2009 was a ‘positive first step’ but more work is needed to address fragmented oversight of US food safety, says the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The GAO said it has commented on the fragmented nature of the United States’ food safety system for more than a decade. It welcomed President Obama’s decision to establish a Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) to try and foster interagency collaboration more than two years ago, but in a new report, the GAO said that the group’s work does not go far enough.
Under current law, food safety monitoring, inspection and labeling functions are spread across 15 agencies in the federal government, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for about 80 percent of the food supply, and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees meat, poultry and egg products.
“Through the FSWG, federal agencies have taken steps designed to increase collaboration in some areas that cross regulatory jurisdictions –– in particular, improving produce safety, reducing Salmonella contamination, and developing food safety performance measures,” the GAO said.
“However, the FSWG has not developed a government-wide performance plan for food safety that provides a comprehensive picture of the federal government’s food safety efforts.”
The GAO said that the Working Group’s goals for a government-wide food safety plan need to be results oriented and include performance measures. It said that the Office of Management and Budget should work together with federal food safety agencies to develop a plan with clear goals and performance measurements, as well as a discussion of strategies and resources.
“GAO and other organizations have identified options to reduce fragmentation and overlap in food safety oversight in the form of alternative organizational structures, but a detailed analysis of their advantages, disadvantages, and potential implementation challenges has yet to be conducted,” the organization said. “…New food safety legislation that was signed into law in January 2011 strengthens a major part of the food safety system; however, it does not apply to the federal food safety system as a whole or create a new risk-based food safety structure.”
Confusion deriving from the division of responsibilities between agencies was highlighted again last summer during the recall of more than half a billion eggs from two Iowa egg producers, thought to have sickened at least 1,900 people. The FDA is responsible for egg safety when eggs are still in the shell, but the USDA takes over once they are broken. In addition, the FDA is in charge of chicken feed safety, while the USDA is responsible for the chickens.
A full copy of the GAO report, entitled Federal Food Safety Oversight: Food Safety Working Group Is a Positive First Step but Governmentwide Planning Is Needed to Address Fragmentation, is available here .