Food Nutrition:

Better Guidance Needed to Improve Reliability of USDA's Food Composition Data

RCED-94-30: Published: Oct 25, 1993. Publicly Released: Nov 26, 1993.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Human Nutrition Information Service's (HNIS) compilation of food composition data, focusing on the: (1) criteria and procedures used to ensure the reliability of food composition data; and (2) coordination and exchange of food composition data with other countries and international groups that maintain similar databases.

GAO found that: (1) some data may not be reliable, since there are no specific criteria or procedures for evaluating food composition data; (2) HNIS staff have considerable latitude in determining what data to include in the handbook; (3) HNIS has accepted some data without sufficient information on the testing and quality assurance procedures used to develop the data; (4) HNIS does not adequately direct the food composition analyses conducted by HNIS contract laboratories; (5) HNIS coordinates and exchanges food composition data with other countries; (6) many countries depend on HNIS data as a source for their own databases; (7) HNIS seldom uses foreign food composition data because of the availability of U.S. data, differences in the nutrient content of foods grown in different countries, and differences in food terminology in different countries; and (8) HNIS has participated in international activities and research to improve food composition data.

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

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, HNIS, to develop specific quality assurance criteria for HNIS staff to use in evaluating food composition data obtained from others before the data are included in Handbook 8.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: ARS has developed criteria for use in evaluating food composition data obtained from others. Also, ARS initiated action to ensure greater access to food industry-generated food composition data, while at the same time ensuring that the data are reliable through complete documentation and adequate quality control. Under this activity, ARS, working with the International Foodservice Distributors Association, is developing criteria and a standard form for collecting industry data. These actions will allow ARS to properly evaluate data for use in its food composition databases.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, HNIS, to develop procedures to better direct the generation of food composition data under HNIS contracts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: ARS has developed quality control procedures to better direct generation of food composition data under agency contracts. ARS has included these quality control measures in two ARS contracts during fiscal year 1995.

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