Federal Food Safety Oversight:

Additional Actions Needed to Improve Planning and Collaboration

GAO-15-180: Published: Dec 18, 2014. Publicly Released: Dec 18, 2014.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have taken steps to implement GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) requirements but could more fully address crosscutting food safety efforts. For example, GPRAMA requires agencies to describe in their strategic and performance planning how they are working with other agencies to achieve their goals. 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 bacteria are resistant to the antibiotics used to treat and prevent illness.

Fully addressing crosscutting efforts in individual strategic and performance planning documents is an important first step toward providing a comprehensive picture of federal food safety performance. However, individual agencies' documents do not provide an integrated perspective on federal food safety performance. In 2011, GAO recommended that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in consultation with the federal agencies having food safety responsibilities, develop a government-wide performance plan for food safety. OMB has not acted on that recommendation. Without such a plan, 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. GAO continues to believe that a government-wide performance plan for food safety is necessary.

HHS's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) have mechanisms in place to facilitate interagency coordination on food safety that focus on specific issues, but none provides for broad-based, centralized collaboration. For example, FDA and FSIS are collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration to improve estimates of foodborne illness sources. 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. Nearly all the experts GAO interviewed agreed that a centralized collaborative mechanism on food safety is important to foster effective interagency collaboration and could enhance food safety oversight. The Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) served as a centralized mechanism for broad-based food safety collaboration and resulted in a number of accomplishments, including improved coordination. However, the FSWG is no longer meeting. A prior centralized mechanism for broad-based collaboration on food safety also was not sustained. Without a centralized collaborative mechanism on food safety, there is no forum for agencies to reach agreement on a set of broad-based food safety goals and objectives. Experts suggested that a centralized collaborative mechanism on food safety--like the FSWG--could provide sustained leadership across agencies over time if it were formalized in statute. Without such formalization, centralized collaborative mechanisms on food safety may continue to be short-lived. 

Why GAO Did This Study

For more than a decade, GAO has reported on the fragmented federal food safety system. In 2007, GAO added federal oversight of food safety to its list of high-risk areas because of risks to the economy and to public health and safety.

GAO conducted this work under the authority of the Comptroller General to assist Congress with its food safety oversight responsibilities. This report examines (1) HHS and USDA implementation of GPRAMA requirements for addressing crosscutting efforts in their food safety strategic and performance planning and (2) the extent to which FDA and FSIS have a centralized mechanism in place to collaborate across federal food safety programs. GAO reviewed relevant legislation and agency documentation; analyzed responses from food safety experts; and interviewed OMB staff and officials from FDA and FSIS.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that HHS and USDA build upon their efforts to implement GPRAMA requirements to fully address crosscutting food safety efforts. Congress should consider (1) directing OMB to develop a government-wide food safety performance plan and (2) formalizing the FSWG through statute to help ensure sustained leadership across food safety agencies over time. GAO provided a draft of this report for review and comment to HHS, OMB, and USDA. HHS and USDA agreed with the recommendation. HHS, OMB, and USDA provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate.

For more information, contact Steve D. Morris at (202) 512-3841 or morriss@gao.gov.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Matter: Because challenges associated with the fragmented federal food safety system are long-standing, decision makers do not have an integrated perspective on federal food safety performance, and centralized mechanisms for broad-based collaboration have not been sustained, Congress should consider directing OMB to develop a government-wide performance plan for food safety that includes results oriented goals and performance measures and a discussion of strategies and resources.

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Matter: Because challenges associated with the fragmented federal food safety system are long-standing, decision makers do not have an integrated perspective on federal food safety performance, and centralized mechanisms for broad-based collaboration have not been sustained, Congress should consider formalizing the FSWG through statute to help ensure sustained leadership across food safety agencies over time.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that their food safety goals are complementary and strategies are mutually reinforcing, the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services should continue to build upon their efforts to implement GPRAMA requirements to address crosscutting food safety efforts, including by more fully describing in their strategic and performance planning documents how they are working with other agencies to achieve their food safety-related goals and objectives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2014, we reported that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had taken steps to implement GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) requirements but could more fully address crosscutting food safety efforts. For example, GPRAMA requires agencies to describe in their strategic and performance planning how they are working with other agencies to achieve their goals. HHS and USDA varied in the amount of detail they provided on their crosscutting food safety efforts. In addition, they did not include several relevant crosscutting efforts, such as the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS), which tracks whether foodborne bacteria are resistant to the antibiotics used to treat and prevent illness. To help ensure that their food safety goals are complementary and strategies are mutually reinforcing, we recommended that the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services continue to build upon their efforts to implement GPRAMA requirements to address crosscutting food safety efforts, including by more fully describing in their strategic and performance planning documents how they are working with other agencies to achieve their food safety-related goals and objectives. In response to our recommendation, HHS took steps to update its strategic and performance planning documents to better address crosscutting food safety efforts. For example, in February 2015, HHS updated its strategic plan to more fully describe how it is working with other agencies to achieve its food safety related goals and objectives. Among other things, HHS described its collaboration with USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and others through collaborative mechanisms such as NARMS, the Partnership for Food Protection, and the Food Emergency Response Network.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that their food safety goals are complementary and strategies are mutually reinforcing, the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services should continue to build upon their efforts to implement GPRAMA requirements to address crosscutting food safety efforts, including by more fully describing in their strategic and performance planning documents how they are working with other agencies to achieve their food safety-related goals and objectives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

 

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