Food Safety:

Agencies Should Further Test Plans for Responding to Deliberate Contamination

RCED-00-3: Published: Oct 27, 1999. Publicly Released: Nov 24, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the preparedness of the federal food safety regulatory agencies to respond to acts or threats of deliberate food contamination, including those by terrorists, focusing on the: (1) extent to which food has been deliberately contaminated with a biological agent (bacteria, virus, or toxin) or threatened to be contaminated with such an agent; and (2) plans and procedures that federal food safety regulatory agencies have for responding to threats and acts of deliberate food contamination with a biological agent.

GAO noted that: (1) deliberate contamination of food with a biological agent has rarely occurred in the United States, according to federal agencies; (2) GAO identified two such acts since 1984, both of which produced short-term illnesses among a combined total of about 765 people, but no deaths; (3) similarly, threats of contamination with a biological agent occur infrequently: from October 1995 through March 1999, federal agencies reported receiving three such threats--two of these were hoaxes, and the other is still an open investigation; (4) the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has written procedures for contacting key FDA and other federal officials and experts to quickly develop an approach to respond to threats or acts of contamination; (5) the approach may involve assessing the credibility of a threat or requesting a recall of the contaminated food; (6) the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) also has written procedures for responding to acts of contamination, which include conducting a preliminary investigation to assess the health hazards and, if necessary, requesting a recall; and (7) for threats of contamination, FSIS is developing a plan that will include coordination steps with other affected federal agencies.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

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

    Recommendation: To better ensure the effectiveness of the federal food safety regulatory agencies' response to deliberate food contamination using a biological agent, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services should direct the Under Secretary for Food Safety and the Commissioner, Food and Drug Administration, respectively, to test the effectiveness of their response plans and procedures, using simulated exercises and, where appropriate, to modify their plans and procedures on the basis of these tests. The exercises should be designed to evaluate the effectiveness of the responses by federal, state, and local agencies, as well as industry, to a variety of incidents of deliberate food contamination with a biological agent.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On January 10, 2003, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service participated in a simulation exercise, involving a biological agent, to test its process for responding to a deliberate attack against the food supply. Over 100 federal, state, and industry representatives participated in this exercise. The agency has been briefed on the results and is working on addressing those results. Future exercises are planned.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the effectiveness of the federal food safety regulatory agencies' response to deliberate food contamination using a biological agent, the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services should direct the Under Secretary for Food Safety and the Commissioner, Food and Drug Administration, respectively, to test the effectiveness of their response plans and procedures, using simulated exercises and, where appropriate, to modify their plans and procedures on the basis of these tests. The exercises should be designed to evaluate the effectiveness of the responses by federal, state, and local agencies, as well as industry, to a variety of incidents of deliberate food contamination with a biological agent.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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