Food Safety:

Opportunities to Redirect Federal Resources and Funds Can Enhance Effectiveness

RCED-98-224: Published: Aug 6, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 8, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO: (1) analyzed the federal food safety agencies' budgets for fiscal year 1999 to determine whether the appropriated funds of more than $1 billion can be spent more effectively; and (2) provided its views on whether the food safety initiatives for fiscal years 1998-1999 will address underlying problems in the federal food safety system.

GAO noted that: (1) more than one-fourth of the over $1-billion federal budget for food safety--about $271 million--could be used more effectively if most of these funds were congressionally redirected from the Food Safety and Inspection Service's organoleptic carcass-by-carcass slaughter inspections to a number of the other food safety activities that need attention; (2) funds currently used for organoleptic, carcass-by-carcass slaughter inspections do not optimize federal resources because these inspections do not detect the most serious public health threat associated with meat and poultry--microbial contamination; (3) instead, these inspections mostly assure the quality of food and therefore benefit the industry more than they ensure food safety for consumers; (4) the $271 million could be used, for example, by the Food Safety and Inspection Service to help the smallest slaughter and processing plants with the cost of installing new science- and risk-based inspection systems; (5) since industry will bear most of the installation cost and the smallest plants operate at a smaller volume over which to spread this cost, these plants will be disproportionately affected by the cost of the new inspection systems; (6) in addition to the funds that could be made available from the revisions to the carcass-by-carcass slaughter inspections, some funds used for daily inspections of meat- and poultry-processing plants could be congressionally redirected to other needs; (7) for example, inspections could be based on the risks at other food plants, such as cereal manufacturers; (8) if the frequency of these inspections were based on the health risk posed rather than on the Food Safety and Inspection Service's practice of conducting processing plant inspections on a daily basis, these inspections would be more effective; (9) the food safety initiatives have made some improvements to the federal food safety system, but they have not comprehensively addressed the underlying problem of the fragmented nature of this system; (10) in fact, while the initiatives provided funding for specific food safety efforts, the initiatives' effective implementation may be impeded by the system's fragmentation; and (11) for example, progress in carrying out the initiative's objective of consolidating seafood inspection activities under one agency has been impeded by the slow progress of the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Commerce in developing legislation for congressional consideration.

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