Food Safety:

Federal Efforts to Ensure Imported Food Safety Are Inconsistent and Unreliable

T-RCED-98-191: Published: May 14, 1998. Publicly Released: May 14, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed: (1) findings from its recent report in which it pointed out how limitations in the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) authority and approach for regulating imported foods adversely affect its ability to ensure food safety; (2) how FDA and the Food Safety and Inspection Service's (FSIS) procedures for selecting shipments to review result in the ineffective targeting of inspection resources; and (3) how weaknesses in FDA's and Customs Service's controls allows unscrupulous importers to market unsafe products.

GAO noted that: (1) FDA lacks the legal authority to require that countries exporting foods to the United States have food safety systems equivalent to U.S. systems, an authority that FSIS has and uses to share the burden of ensuring safe foods with the exporting countries; (2) without such authority, FDA must rely primarily on its port-of-entry inspections, which covered less than 2 percent of shipments in 1997, to detect and bar unsafe foods; (3) such an approach has been widely discredited as an effective protective measure; (4) both FDA and FSIS could make better use of their inspection resources by using available health risk information to target shipments for inspection that pose the highest food safety risk; (5) FDA could further improve the use of resources by clarifying its communications to inspectors about which shipments to select and by taking enforcement action when importers are found to inaccurately describe the contents of shipments; (6) with such improvements, FDA could better ensure that it is using its scarce resources to identify the foods posing greater risks; (7) FDA's procedures for ensuring that unsafe imported foods do not reach U.S. consumers are vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous importers; (8) under current procedures, FDA generally allows importers to retain control over shipments until the agency grants their release; (9) if importers move shipments into domestic commerce without a FDA release, FDA has no effective means of compelling importers to return the shipments for inspection, destruction, or reexport; (10) when FDA requires an importer to provide evidence that a suspect shipment is safe, the agency allows the importer to select the laboratory that picks the samples to be tested and that conducts the tests; and (11) FDA's and Custom's principal deterrent for ensuring that importers comply with U.S. requirements is uneven and uncertain.

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