Food Safety:

Changes Needed to Minimize Unsafe Chemicals in Food

RCED-94-192: Published: Sep 26, 1994. Publicly Released: Sep 29, 1994.

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GAO reviewed the federal government's efforts to monitor harmful chemical residues in food, focusing on the: (1) methodologies and data used to identify chemical risks; (2) federal government's legal and regulatory structure; (3) federal government's enforcement processes; and (4) safety of imported foods.

GAO found that: (1) because of fragmented responsibility, federal efforts to assess the risks posed by chemicals are inconsistent and may produce questionable results; (2) the different standards and regulations governing the approval and use of chemicals in food could expose consumers to questionable risks; (3) federal enforcement mechanisms do not prevent contaminated food products from entering the food supply and do not effectively penalize violators or deter future violations; (4) ensuring the safety of agricultural products is often problematic because federal agencies have less control over imported foods; (5) although meat and poultry can be imported only from countries with equivalent inspection systems, no such requirement is in place for other types of food products; and (6) the federal government has limited assurance that many imported products have been adequately inspected in the country of origin.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matters for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: To overcome the fundamental weaknesses in the federal government's programs for monitoring chemical residues and environmental contaminants in food, Congress should enact a uniform set of food safety laws that includes consistent standards for chemical residues and contaminants in food and provides the federal agencies with the authorities needed to effectively carry out their oversight responsibilities.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In March 1999, the President's Council on Food Safety wrote that it supports the August 1998 National Academy of Science recommendations for a new statute that establishes a unified framework for food safety programs and a scientific risk-based approach to food safety. The Council said that it will conduct an assessment of structural models and other mechanisms that could strengthen the federal food safety system, and will develop a comprehensive national food safety plan. With the change of administration in January 2001, many Council members have left government service, and the Council appears to have ceased operation.

    Matter: Congress should consider the feasibility of requiring that all food eligible for import to the United States, not just meat and poultry, be produced under equivalent food safety systems.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has conducted three national conferences to provide further training on inspectors' roles, responsibilities, and authorities for reviewing and verifying HACCP plans. Some 195 field officials were in attendance along with 71 employee organization and union officials. In addition, 17 heads of the inspection program attended. FSIS has begun surveying field employees about the clarity and usefulness of directives dealing with these topics. Once the surveys are concluded and the data analyzed, FSIS will issue necessary clarifications.

    Matter: The problems associated with the current fragmented system cannot be solved by individual agencies' efforts to respond to internal and external critics. Instead, these problems can be best addressed by a complete restructuring of the federal food safety system for chemical residues and environmental contaminants. Congress may wish to consider creating a single food safety agency responsible for carrying out the requirements of cohesive food safety laws.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In August 1998, a National Academy of Sciences issued report recommended that Congress establish, by statute, a unified and central framework for managing federal food safety programs, one that is headed by a single official, and has the responsibility and control of resources for all federal food safety activities. In March 1999, the President's Council on Food Safety wrote that it supports the Academy's report, and that it will conduct an assessment of structural models and other mechanisms that could strengthen the federal food safety system. With the change of administration in January 2001, many Council members have left government service, and the Council appears to have ceased operation.

    Matter: Congress should revise the nature of the federal government's role for ensuring food safety by moving it away from end-product testing to preventing contamination from occurring. Under such an approach, the government would, among other things: (1) continue to approve chemicals and set tolerances; (2) oversee a mandatory, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-based, industry-run food safety assurance program; and (3) assist industry in developing adequate test methods.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: While Congress did not initiate any action on this recommendation, USDA and FDA have developed Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) regulations for meat, poultry, and seafood that require testing for chemical residues and environmental contaminants. A HACCP plan is also being developed for fruits and vegetables. These USDA and FDA actions respond to the recommendation and further congressional action may not be required.

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