GAO calls for better federal food safety coordination

Mar 21, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – Although the Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 has been a good first step to boost food safety collaboration among government agencies, it lacks results-oriented goals and performance benchmarks, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a new report.

And while the GAO said new food safety legislation passed in January strengthens part of the nation's food safety system, it doesn't apply broader measures or put in place a new risk-based system, as the GAO recommended in earlier reports.

The GAO's 32-page report, released Mar 18, is the second time in recent weeks that it has highlighted duplication and problems with oversight in the nation's federal food safety system.

In 2010 Congress passed a law ordering the GAO to produce annual duplication reports as a tool to help it reduce the federal deficit. A report earlier this month highlighted food safety as one of 48 areas of overlap in federal government oversight; however, today's report focuses solely on food safety.

The formation of the FSWG in 2009 followed several high-profile outbreaks involving such foods as peanuts, pistachios, hot peppers, and ground beef. In July of that year the group issued a report outlining several key steps, which included new egg safety rules intended to reduce the burden of Salmonella infections. The steps also addressed Escherichia coli contamination in ground beef and produce, trace-back investigations, and federal food safety oversight.

Problems with food safety oversight have been one of the GAO's top-tier concerns in recent years. In 2007 it added the topic to its high-risk list, emphasizing that the nation needs a government-wide performance plan for food safety that is mission-based and results-oriented and includes a cross-agency perspective. The GAO has also pushed Congress to consider forming a blue-ribbon panel to explore alternate food safety organizational structures, such as a single agency or a data-collection and risk-analysis center.

The GAO conducted its review of the nation's food safety oversight system between July 2010 and March 2011.

It said the recently passed Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food and Safety Modernization Act shifts the FDA's focus from responding to contamination events to prevention and boosts its oversight authority, but it still doesn't address the whole federal food safety system. "In particular, it does not address the USDA's [US Department of Agriculture's] authorities, which remain separate and distinct from the FDA's," GAO investigators wrote.

They noted that the FSWG shows a strong commitment to food safety, and that its efforts to boost collaboration have improved produce safety, reduced Salmonella contamination, and led to the development of some food safety performance measures. However, most of the goals in the group's report are not results oriented or include performance measures.

The GAO singled out food imports as one area of concern, noting that although they represent 60% of fresh produce and 80% of seafood, none of the FSWG goals address the category. It also faulted the FSWG for not updating its goals, opting instead to integrate planning into the agency budgeting process.

A food safety initiative by former president Bill Clinton disbanded in 2001 after less than 3 years, and the GAO questioned if executive branch leadership changes could hamper the attention to and continuity of food safety reforms.

The GAO repeated its call for a national commission to explore other systems that could reduce overlap in food safety oversight, and it called on the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), consulting with food safety agencies, to develop a government-wide performance plan for food safety.

The GAO said the OMB declined to comment on its report and that the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services provided technical comments.

See also:

Mar 18 GAO report

Mar 3 CIDRAP News story "GAO's federal duplication report cites problems in public health"

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