GAO looks abroad for food-safety oversight lessons

Jul 17, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report examining the results several developed nations and the European Union achieved when they consolidated oversight of food safety in a single agency, a step often advocated in the United State for solving some of the problems linked to contaminated imported and domestic food.

The report was requested by members of congressional food safety committees that are considering—amid widespread complaints that regulatory fragmentation hobbles the country's food safety system—whether sweeping changes are needed to reduce the number and speed the investigation of foodborne illness outbreaks. The 101-page report was released Jul 14 but is dated Jun 2008.

Coming amid the nation's largest produce-related outbreak, in which tomatoes and jalapeno peppers are the top suspects, the report's release is designed to assist lawmakers who face renewed pressure to consolidate food safety oversight under one agency. Several high-profile food contamination incidents have unfolded over the past 2 years, such as Escherichia coli O157:H7 in fresh spinach and ground beef and toxic chemicals from imported ingredients used in pet foods.

In January 2007 the GAO added federal oversight of food safety to its high-risk series list, which marks it as a high priority for broad transformation to make the process more efficient, effective, and accountable.

Within the last year the two federal agencies that handle most of the nation's food safety efforts have issued their own safety plans. In October the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a list of proposals to reverse the upswing in ground-beef recalls and E coli illnesses. The following month the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released an Import Safety Plan and a Food Protection Plan that proposed features such as enhanced inspection of high-risk imports and authority for mandatory recalls.

The GAO said its report isn't meant to compare the food safety systems of other countries with the United States, but rather to explore the processes other countries use and the challenges they face. The report looks at import safety and outbreak response methods in Canada, the European Union, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The GAO did not evaluate countries' management of their food safety systems.

Common themes emerge
GAO inspectors pointed out that the United States shares some of the same food safety challenges as other nations, including the ones surveyed in the report. For example, imported food accounts for a growing portion of the food supply, consumers are eating more raw foods, and aging populations mean more people will be more susceptible to foodborne illnesses.

"All [of the selected countries] are high-income counties where consumers have high expectations for food safety," GAO officials wrote.

The authors said the report follows up on a 2005 GAO report that described the approaches and challenges that seven countries (Canada, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) faced as they reorganized and consolidated their food safety systems into a single agency.

Some members of Congress and consumer groups have called for a similar consolidation of the US food safety system, which is now divided among more than a dozen federal agencies.

The GAO found several common themes in the national food safety systems:

  • Farm-to-table oversight that focuses on avoiding problems throughout the food chain
  • Producer responsibility for food safety, for both domestic and imported goods
  • Separate risk-assessment and risk-management agencies, with some cases countries separating risk management from industry-promotion functions
  • Cooperation between government veterinarians and public health officials
  • Mandatory recall authority

In examining how countries handle imports, the GAO found a high degree of coordination among the European Union, its member countries, and some nonmember countries. When food safety problems are found at one of the 300 EU inspection posts, a rapid alert is sent electronically, detailing the risk to human health or animal feed.

The auditors also found that Japan sets yearly goals for import inspections of targeted food groups and places the burden of additional inspections on the importers.

Most of the countries told the GAO that their procedures for tracing foodborne illness outbreaks are generally similar to those used in the United States. However, the EU has a traceability requirement for all foods that is designed to help speed outbreak investigations; producers at each manufacturing stage must document where a particular food came from and where it is going next—"one step forward and one step back." Also, Canada, Japan, and the EU have mandatory identification programs for certain animals that document where the animals came from and where they were sent for slaughter. The countries use a variety of tools, such as ear tags, "passports," or bar codes.

Some of the nations said coordination between government veterinarians and public health officials is crucial, particularly when investigating zoonotic diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy or avian influenza. For example, the GAO said a 2004 outbreak of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella in cattle in the United Kingdom never struck humans, thanks to rapid communication between the country's Health Protection Agency and the Veterinary Laboratory Agency.

All the countries have mandatory recall authority, but said they rarely need to use it. For example, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said the authority is effective "because it is there," contributing to better industry cooperation. The CFIA said it has ordered only seven recalls.

Are system reorganizations effective?
The countries the GAO looked at said they have not done comprehensive evaluations of their reorganized food safety systems. "One food safety expert noted that it is difficult to determine the effectiveness of a food safety system because it involves proving that something did not happen, i.e., that exporters did not try to ship unsafe food to a country," the report says.

However, several countries did track indicators such as number of inspections performed, number of enforcement actions taken, number of foodborne illnesses, and consumer satisfaction. For example, in the United Kingdom, the public's confidence in the government's ability to protect against foodborne illnesses was 60%, as compared with about 44% in 2001.

In Japan, however, a consumer survey of the government's risk communications found that the public did not understand the concept of assessing risk, which has prompted the government to try to better communicate its food safety role to the public and clarify its risk messages.

Meanwhile, German officials sought feedback from stakeholders, who have suggested improvements in the country's food safety system. Some of the stakeholders told GAO auditors that one benefit of food safety system reorganization is having a single contact point.

Nations voice future concerns
The GAO queried experts in the countries about the challenges they expect to face over the next decade. The answers included:

  • Climate change effects such the emergence of new pathogens and new patterns of disease spread
  • Demographic changes, such as an aging population and greater immigration
  • New food trends and technology, such as new convenience items and the rise of processing systems that involve nanotechnology, genetic modification, and decontamination
  • Industry changes that include consolidation in the food industry and an increase in global food trade.

See also:

GAO report on food import safety and foodborne illness outbreak response in selected countries

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