Key Issues > High Risk > Improving Federal Oversight of Food Safety
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Improving Federal Oversight of Food Safety

This information appears as published in the 2015 High Risk Report.

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For more than a decade, we have reported on the fragmented federal food safety system, which has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources. We added federal food safety oversight to the High Risk List in 2007 because of risks to the economy, to public health, and to safety. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that each year—as a result of foodborne illness—48 million people (or roughly 1 in 6 Americans) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. Two independent studies published in 2012 estimated the cost of foodborne illness in the United States. According to a September 2013 bulletin from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service, the study that used the more conservative approach estimated the cost to be over $14 billion per year. Three major trends also create food safety challenges. First, a substantial and increasing portion of the U.S. food supply is imported. Second, consumers are eating more raw and minimally processed foods. Third, segments of the population that are particularly susceptible to foodborne illnesses, such as older adults and immune-compromised individuals, are growing.

The safety and quality of the U.S. food supply is governed by a highly complex system stemming from at least 30 laws related to food safety that are collectively administered by 15 federal agencies. The agencies with primary food safety oversight responsibility are the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FSIS is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry, and processed egg products.[1] FDA is responsible for virtually all other food.

Because we believe that federal agencies can address fragmentation in food safety oversight by improving planning and collaboration, we have changed the title of this high-risk area from “Revamping Federal Oversight of Food Safety” to “Improving Federal Oversight of Food Safety.”



[1] In addition, as a result of 2008 Farm Bill provisions amending the Federal Meat Inspection Act, regulatory responsibility for catfish inspection will fall to FSIS once it issues final regulations for a mandatory catfish examination and inspection program. In May 2012, we suggested that Congress consider repealing these provisions of the 2008 Farm Bill. However, the 2014 Farm Bill instead modified these provisions to require the Secretary of Agriculture to enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Commissioner of FDA that would ensure that inspection of catfish conducted by FSIS and FDA are not duplicative. We maintain that such an MOU does not address the fundamental problem, which is that FSIS’s catfish program, if implemented, would result in duplication of activities and an inefficient use of taxpayer funds. Duplication would result if facilities that process both catfish and other seafood were inspected by both FSIS and FDA.

Improving Federal Oversight of Food Safety

With the enactment of the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) in January 2011,[1] Congress and the executive branch demonstrated commitment and top leadership support for improving collaboration across the federal government. HHS and USDA have demonstrated progress in addressing fragmentation in federal oversight of food safety by taking steps to implement GPRAMA’s crosscutting requirements for their food safety efforts, but the agencies vary in the amount of detail they provide on those efforts and do not include several other relevant efforts. Federal food safety agencies have the capacity to more fully address crosscutting food safety efforts in their individual strategic and performance planning documents; however, they require Office of Management and Budget (OMB) action to use those documents as building blocks to develop a government-wide performance plan on food safety to guide corrective actions and monitor progress. The President demonstrated strong commitment and top leadership support by establishing the Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) to coordinate federal efforts, but the group has not met for at least 3 years.[2] Federal food safety agencies have the capacity to participate in a broad-based, centralized collaborative mechanism on food safety—like the FSWG—but congressional action would be required to formalize such a mechanism through statute to ensure sustained leadership across food safety agencies over time.

The criterion of demonstrating commitment to, and top leadership support for, addressing fragmentation in federal oversight of food safety has been partially met. With the enactment of GPRAMA in January 2011, Congress and the executive branch demonstrated strong commitment and top leadership support for improving collaboration across the federal government. When we added federal food safety oversight to the High Risk List, we suggested that Congress and the executive branch work together to develop a government-wide performance plan for food safety. In March 2011, we recommended that OMB, in consultation with the federal agencies having food safety responsibilities, develop such a plan. However, OMB has not acted on that recommendation. GPRAMA further highlights the need for crosscutting strategic and performance planning for issues that involve multiple federal agencies and could provide the initial steps toward a government-wide performance plan for food safety.

GPRAMA added new requirements for addressing crosscutting efforts in federal strategic and performance planning. For example, GPRAMA requires agencies to describe in their strategic and performance planning documents how they are working with other agencies to achieve their goals. HHS and USDA have taken steps to implement GPRAMA’s crosscutting requirements for their food safety efforts. However, the agencies do not fully address crosscutting food safety efforts in their strategic and performance planning documents. HHS and USDA vary in the amount of detail they provide on their crosscutting food safety efforts. In addition, they do not include several relevant crosscutting efforts, such as the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, which tracks whether foodborne and other bacteria are resistant to the antibiotics used to treat and prevent the spread of illness. In December 2014, we recommended that HHS and USDA continue to build upon their efforts to implement GPRAMA requirements to address crosscutting food safety efforts in their strategic and performance planning documents. Fully addressing crosscutting food safety efforts in individual strategic and performance planning documents is an important first step toward providing a comprehensive picture of the federal government’s performance in overseeing food safety. However, the agency-by-agency focus of individual planning documents alone does not provide the integrated perspective on federal food safety performance necessary to guide congressional and executive branch decision-making and to inform the public about what federal agencies are doing to ensure food safety. Those individual documents could, however, provide building blocks toward the next, more challenging task of developing a single, government-wide performance plan for food safety.

The President demonstrated strong commitment and top leadership in March 2009, when the President established the Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) to coordinate federal efforts and develop goals to make food safer. In March 2011, we indicated that creation of the FSWG was a positive step. However, the group is no longer meeting. According to senior FDA and FSIS officials and OMB staff, the FSWG is no longer needed, given the existence of other collaborative mechanisms. FDA and FSIS are involved in numerous mechanisms to facilitate interagency coordination on food safety; however, existing mechanisms focus on specific issues and none provides for broad-based, centralized collaboration. For example, FDA and FSIS are collaborating with CDC through the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration to improve estimates of the most common sources of foodborne illnesses. However, this and other mechanisms do not allow FDA, FSIS, and other agencies to look across their individual programs and determine how they all contribute to federal food safety goals. In addition, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)[3]—enacted in 2011 to amend existing food safety laws—includes includes numerous provisions requiring interagency collaboration, but these too focus on specific topics and do not provide for centralized, broad-based collaboration across food safety regulations and programs. In December 2014, we reported that 10 of 12 experts in food safety that we interviewed agreed that a centralized collaborative mechanism on food safety is important to foster effective interagency collaboration and could enhance food safety oversight.

Federal food safety agencies have partially met the criterion for capacity to address the fragmentation in food safety oversight. USDA and HHS have the capacity to more fully address crosscutting food safety efforts in their individual strategic and performance planning documents; however, they require OMB action to use those documents as building blocks to develop a government-wide performance plan on food safety. OMB has not taken action in almost 4 years to develop such a plan. We continue to believe that a government-wide performance plan for food safety is necessary. In December 2014, we suggested that Congress consider directing OMB to develop a government-wide performance plan for food safety. Federal food safety agencies also have the capacity to participate in a centralized collaborative mechanism on food safety—like the FSWG—but congressional action would be required to formalize such a mechanism through statute. In December 2014, we reported that experts we interviewed suggested that a centralized collaborative mechanism on food safety could provide sustained leadership across agencies over time if it were formalized in statute. The FSWG served as a centralized mechanism for broad-based collaboration on food safety and resulted in a number of accomplishments, including improved coordination. However, the group has not met for an estimated 3 years. The President’s Council on Food Safety, a previous centralized mechanism for broad-based collaboration, was also not sustained. Our prior reports have identified other cases where leadership of an interagency collaborative mechanism changed, and the mechanism ceased or became less useful. Without formalization, centralized collaborative mechanisms on food safety may continue to be short-lived. In December 2014, we suggested that Congress consider formalizing the FSWG through statute to help ensure sustained leadership across food safety agencies over time.

The criteria of having a corrective action plan and a program to monitor corrective measures have not been met. Without a government-wide performance plan for food safety, Congress, program managers, and other decision-makers are hampered in their ability to identify agencies and programs addressing similar missions and to set priorities, allocate resources, and restructure federal efforts, as needed, to achieve long-term goals. In addition, without such a plan, federal food safety efforts are not clear and transparent to the public. Currently, to understand what its government is doing to ensure the safety of the food supply, Congress, program managers, other decision-makers, and the public must access and attempt to make sense of and reconcile individual documents across the 15 federal food safety federal agencies. Moreover, without a centralized collaborative mechanism on food safety—like the FSWG—there is no forum for agencies to reach agreement on a set of broad-based food safety goals and objectives that could be articulated in a government-wide performance plan on food safety.

The criterion of demonstrating progress in implementing corrective measures to address fragmentation in federal oversight of food safety has been partially met. As noted, HHS and USDA have taken steps to implement GPRAMA’s crosscutting requirements for their food safety efforts but could more fully address crosscutting food safety efforts in their individual strategic and performance planning documents and thereby provide building blocks toward OMB’s development of a government-wide performance plan on food safety. Establishing the FSWG was another positive step, but the group is no longer meeting and nothing like it has taken its place to provide for broad-based, centralized collaboration across food safety regulations and programs.

 



[1] Pub. L. No. 111-352, 124 Stat. 3866 (2011). GPRAMA amended provisions of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA), Pub. L. No. 103-62, 107 Stat. 285.

[2] FDA officials said they thought the FSWG’s last meeting was in April 2011, but they could not provide an exact date. The last item posted under “recent actions” on the FSWG’s website is its December 2011 Progress Report.

[3] Pub. L. No. 111-353, 124 Stat. 3885 (2011).

To address capacity constraints for addressing fragmentation in federal oversight of food safety and to guide corrective actions and monitor progress, Congress should consider directing OMB to develop a government-wide performance plan for food safety and formalizing the FSWG through statute. To provide building blocks toward OMB’s development of a government-wide performance plan for food safety, HHS and USDA should implement our recommendation—also discussed above—related to GPRAMA crosscutting requirements. These actions should provide federal food safety agencies with vehicles to demonstrate strong commitment to, top leadership support for, and progress in implementing corrective measures to address fragmentation in federal oversight of food safety. If, over the next several years, weaknesses in the food safety system persist, Congress may wish to assess the need for comprehensive, uniform, risk-based food safety legislation or to amend FDA’s and USDA’s existing authorities—recognizing that tight budgets may constrain far-reaching actions for the foreseeable future. Congress should then also consider commissioning a detailed analysis of alternative organizational structures for food safety.

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  • portrait of Steve D. Morris
    • Steve D. Morris
    • Director, Natural Resources and Environment
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