Food Safety:

Agencies' Handling of a Dioxin Incident Caused Hardships for Some Producers and Processors

RCED-98-104: Published: Apr 10, 1998. Publicly Released: Apr 10, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the performance of federal agencies in handling their investigation into elevated dioxin levels in poultry samples, focusing on: (1) the basis for the agencies' decisions to require producers to demonstrate their food products did not contain levels of dioxin above one part per trillion; (2) their effectiveness in working together to make decisions to address the problem of dioxin; and (3) the impact of the food safety system on the handling of this dioxin incident.

GAO noted that: (1) the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requested the producers and processors to halt the distribution of food products with dioxin levels above one part per trillion because of their concern about the potential risk to human health that these products might present; (2) while scientists have not yet determined the level of dioxin that poses a danger to human health, FDA and FSIS believed that one part per trillion was an appropriate level to use for halting the distribution of these products; (3) FDA chose the one-part-per-trillion level to distinguish food products with elevated dioxin levels from those products with background dioxin levels; (4) the federal agencies worked cooperatively to identify the source of the dioxin contamination and to decide on the actions that might be necessary to address any health risks the contaminated food products posed to consumers; (5) however, their guidance to the affected producers and processors was sometimes unclear and impractical, which left the affected producers confused about the actions they needed to take; (6) for example, FDA, which is responsible for fish products, told producers they had to test their products, but the agency did not tell them how to collect their samples for testing; (7) in addition, the producers expressed concern that the agencies did not provide them with adequate time to comply with the agencies' testing requirements; (8) in some instances, the testing process took longer than the time allowed under the deadline; (9) although these regulatory actions delayed some food products from reaching the market, industry officials told GAO that FDA's and FSIS's actions did not result in the widespread destruction of affected food products; (10) in addressing the dioxin incident, the agencies involved had to overcome the inherent inefficiencies associated with the current food safety system, which divides responsibility for ensuring food safety among several agencies; and (11) as GAO has reported on numerous occasions, this fragmented food safety system necessitates extensive coordination efforts to minimize wasteful duplication of effort, prevent gaps in regulatory coverage, and avoid conflicting actions.

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