Food Safety:

U.S. Needs a Single Agency to Administer a Unified, Risk-Based Inspection System

T-RCED-99-256: Published: Aug 4, 1999. Publicly Released: Aug 4, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the need to revamp the federal food safety system, focusing on: (1) an overview of GAO's work on the problems resulting from the fragmented food safety system; and (2) where in the federal government food safety inspection responsibilities should reside.

GAO noted that: (1) the structure of the food safety system--which costs the federal treasury more than $1 billion annually--hampers efforts to address public health concerns associated with existing and newly identified food safety risks; (2) the fragmented system was not developed under any rational plan but was patched together over many years to address specific health threats from particular food products; (3) efforts to address food safety concerns--particularly changing health risks--are hampered by inconsistent and inflexible oversight and enforcement authorities, inefficient resource use, and ineffective coordination; (4) a single food safety inspection agency responsible for administering a uniform set of laws is the most effective way for the federal government to resolve these long-standing problems, deal with emerging food safety issues, and better ensure a safe food supply; (5) while GAO believes that this would be the most effective approach, GAO recognizes that there are short term costs and other considerations associated with setting up a new government agency; (6) a second option, though less desirable, would be to consolidate food safety activities in an existing department; (7) in such an event, consolidating these activities--either in the Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration--presents benefits and drawbacks; and (8) regardless, it is unlikely that fundamental, long-lasting improvements in food safety will occur until food safety activities are consolidated under a single agency and the patchwork of food safety legislation is altered to make it uniform and risk-based.

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