Federal regulators may need more authority to assess food security, GAO says

Mar 21, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – Federal food regulators should consider asking Congress for authority to gather information about security measures at food processing plants so they can better assess industry efforts to protect food from deliberate contamination, according to a new report by Congress's General Accounting Office (GAO).

The two major food regulatory agencies provide voluntary security guidelines for food and meat processing plants, but the agencies don't monitor implementation of the guidelines, says the report, released this week. Food processors don't want to disclose their security measures because they fear that terrorists would use the information as a "road map" for planning attacks.

"Without the ability to require food-processing facilities to provide information on their security measures," the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) "cannot fully assess industry's efforts to prevent or reduce the vulnerability of the nation's food supply to deliberate contamination," the report states. "Similarly, they cannot advise processors on needed security enhancements."

GAO recommends that the secretaries of health and human services and of agriculture study federal law to determine what added authority their agencies may need regarding security at food plants. Depending on those findings, "the agencies should seek additional authority from Congress, as needed," the report states.

GAO also reports that only some FSIS field inspectors and none of FDA's food inspectors have been trained regarding the agencies' security guidelines. The report recommends that all food inspection personnel be trained "to enhance their awareness and ability to discuss security measures with plant personnel."

The report was requested by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. They asked the GAO to examine whether FDA and FSIS have enough authority to require security measures at food processing plants, what security guidelines the agencies have provided, and what measures food processors have adopted.

The two agencies say they currently have relatively little authority to require security measures, according to the report. FDA officials said they can regulate food security only to the small extent that it overlaps with food safety (protection from unintentional contamination). USDA believes it can require food processors "to adopt certain security measures that are closely related to sanitary conditions inside the facility," but it can't require measures unrelated to the immediate food-processing areas, such as fences, alarms, or employee background checks.

Neither FDA nor FSIS monitors or documents the implementation of its security guidelines, GAO reports. Inspectors are instructed to be familiar with the guidelines and "to discuss, but not interpret" them with facility workers. The agencies have told inspectors not to document security measures or the lack thereof "because of the possible release of this information under the Freedom of Information Act and the potential for misuse of this information. As a result, FDA and FSIS do not have information on the extent of security at food-processing facilities or whether gaps in security may exist in specific industry sectors."

Food industry associations told GAO that food processors are embracing many of the security measures recommended by FDA and FSIS, such as installing fences, requiring employee identification badges, and restricting access to certain plant areas. GAO staff members found this was true at five plants they visited, but they could not assess the extent of security implementation nationwide, in part because companies don't want to disclose the information to federal agencies, the report says. "The industry is worried that if security gaps at food processing facilities were made public they could provide a road map for terrorist groups."

A GAO survey of FDA and FSIS personnel indicated that the plants they inspect are voluntarily adopting a number of security steps, including improvements to perimeter fencing and lighting, vehicle inspections, and employee identification, the report says. Most of the inspectors, however, could not comment on less visible security efforts such as water-source protection and safe mail-handling procedures.

Both federal agencies reviewed the GAO report before its release. USDA agreed with both of the GAO's recommendations (assessing whether more authority is needed to regulate security and training all inspectors regarding security guidelines), the report says. FDA agreed with the advice about inspector training but did not offer an opinion on whether it should consider seeking more authority.

The National Food Processors Association (NFPA) interpreted the GAO report as a clear call for more government authority over security at food processing plants and took issue with it as such. Rhona Applebaum, NFPA executive vice president, said the current voluntary approach provides needed flexibility. "GAO appears to dismiss any food security activities unless they are mandatory, not voluntary," she said in a news release. "NFPA believes that our nation's current approach to food security—utilizing guidance from both government and the food industry itself—has been highly effective in enhancing food security, to the extent possible"

However, Applebaum endorsed the GAO recommendation that government inspectors be trained to improve their awareness of their agencies' security guidelines.

See also:

Full text of GAO report

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