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entitled 'Posthearing Questions Related to Fragmentation and Overlap in 
the Federal Food Safety System' which was released on May 26, 2004.

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May 26, 2004:

The Honorable Jo Ann Davis:

Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Civil Service and Agency Organization:

Committee on Government Reform:

House of Representatives:

Subject: Posthearing Questions Related to Fragmentation and Overlap in 
the Federal Food Safety System:

Dear Chairwoman Davis:

On March 30, I testified before your subcommittee at the hearing A 
System Rued: Inspecting Food.[Footnote 1] This report responds to your 
request that I provide answers to follow-up questions from the hearing. 
Your questions, along with my responses, follow.

(1) Does the lack of a single official responsible for the operations 
of all food inspection programs in the federal government decrease the 
effectiveness of congressional oversight? How has the current system 
affected the oversight work of GAO?

As the Comptroller General stressed in his September 2003 testimony 
before the subcommittee,[Footnote 2] the current structure of the food 
safety system in general, and the food inspection programs in 
particular, could be improved by reducing the number of entities 
charged with oversight, thereby enhancing accountability and increasing 
government efficiency. From a congressional perspective, the fragmented 
nature of the food inspection system results in divided, and perhaps 
diluted, responsibility for ensuring a safe food supply and protecting 
the public health. For example, congressional oversight committees and 
GAO must review and analyze multiple agencies' programs, policies, and 
budgets, in order to address questions of overall food safety 
oversight, rather than focus on food safety inspection programs under 
one agency's jurisdiction. In particular, it is difficult to compare 
program effectiveness when the agencies responsible for maintaining 
food safety are operating under different statutory requirements. In 
addition, for consumers as well as for GAO, it is at times difficult to 
determine which agency is responsible for ensuring the safety of a 
particular food product. For example, the Department of Agriculture 
(USDA) might be responsible for inspecting a particular food item, but 
once that item is used in a processed food product, it might be 
regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Arbitrary 
jurisdictional lines of authority can make the current food safety 
inspection system difficult to assess and, more importantly, 
unresponsive to the needs of the public.

(2) Why should the Congress consider a major reorganization of the 
federal food inspection system at this time?

Beyond the issues of organizational inefficiency and confusing 
jurisdictional responsibilities, the vulnerability of our food supply 
to potential attack and deliberate contamination provides a new and 
compelling impetus for reorganizing the federal food inspection system. 
As several of our recent testimonies have stressed, bioterrorist 
attacks could be directed at many different targets in the farm-to-
table continuum, including crops, livestock, and food products in the 
processing and distribution chain. Both FDA and USDA have taken steps 
to protect the food supply against terrorist attack, but it is, for the 
most part, the current food safety system that the nation must depend 
on to prevent and respond to this potential threat. At present, the 
federal agencies responsible for oversight of food safety have 
differing authorities. As a result, some inspectors provide daily 
inspections of certain food products, while others inspect much less 
frequently--every year to 3 years, on average. Consequently, FDA 
products are not receiving the same level of scrutiny as USDA products, 
potentially making FDA products more vulnerable to inadvertent as well 
as deliberate contamination. This is of particular concern in the case 
of imported food. Equally important, at a time of increasing budget 
deficits, the current distribution of inspection resources is not the 
most efficient use of federal resources. As my recent testimony pointed 
out, FDA has roughly 1,900 inspectors who must oversee about 57,000 
facilities, whereas USDA has more than three times the number of 
inspectors at about 6,400 establishments--and this distribution of 
federal resources is not based on the food safety risk of particular 

(3) Should such reorganization be in the form of putting all of the 
food inspection functions under an existing agency or should a new 
agency be created to handle all food inspection functions? Please 
briefly describe the pros and cons of either option.

In our view, consolidating all food safety functions (e.g. standard 
setting, inspection, risk assessment, research, and surveillance) under 
a single independent agency would offer the most logical approach to 
resolve long-standing problems, address emerging food safety issues, 
and better ensure a safe food supply. If, instead, all food safety 
authorities were consolidated under an existing agency, the advantages 
and disadvantages of charging USDA or FDA with those responsibilities 
must be considered. At present, USDA has more resources and possibly 
more experience with food product inspections because of its longer 
institutional history. However, USDA promotes agriculture, and that may 
be perceived as a conflict of interest. In contrast, FDA, as a public 
health agency, has a mission that aligns well with food safety, and it 
has established scientific expertise in preventing foodborne illness.

If reorganization is limited to the inspection functions alone, it is 
not cost effective, or reasonable, to create a new agency to take on 
solely these functions. In the current budgetary climate, it would be 
better to designate one current agency as the lead agency for all food 
safety inspection matters. Merging USDA's food inspection 
responsibilities into FDA would be an alternative that would separate 
market promotion activities from food safety activities--a criticism 
that is often raised about USDA's dual mission as promoter of 
agricultural and food products and at the same time overseer of their 
safety. Also, it would place food safety oversight under a public 
health agency. Merging FDA's food inspection activities into USDA has 
the advantage of needing to move fewer federal personnel. In either 
case, underlying the transference of inspection responsibilities is the 
fundamental need to reform the current legislative structure for food 
safety, so that the lead inspection agency would be able to focus its 
resources on the foods with the greatest risk to consumers.

(4) What are some of the characteristics that should be inherent in a 
streamlined federal food inspection system?

In our view, a unified, risk-based approach to federal food safety 
should characterize any new inspection system. A critical step in 
designing and implementing a risk-based food safety system is 
identifying the most important food safety problems, across the entire 
food system, from a public health perspective. Identifying these 
problems would help focus federal oversight resources. Comprehensive, 
uniform, and risk-based food safety legislation is needed to provide 
the foundation for this approach. We also believe that in order to be 
effective, a federal food inspection system should include performance 
standards to help evaluate the effectiveness of federal regulatory 
requirements for industry and its efforts to meet those requirements.

(5) In the event of some sort of consolidation of the food inspection 
functions into a "single agency," in either a new agency or an existing 
one, are there any food inspection functions that should remain outside 
the "single agency"? If so, please explain the necessity for keeping 
the function out of the "single agency.":

From our perspective, reorganization of food safety authorities, 
including the consolidation of critical functions such as rule making, 
inspection, surveillance, and research, does not necessarily mean that 
all functions should be incorporated into a single food safety agency. 
In fact, we believe it may make sense to maintain some functions 
separately. If, for example, FDA's food safety authorities were 
subsumed under USDA, it might be desirable to keep functions such as 
foodborne illness surveillance in the Centers for Disease Control and 
Prevention, which is part of the Department of Health and Human 
Services. However, in the event of consolidation limited strictly to 
the food inspection functions, we believe that all food inspection 
functions should be incorporated into the single food safety agency.

We appreciate the opportunity to comment and hope that these responses 
are of assistance. If you have any additional questions, please do not 
hesitate to call me at (202) 512-3841.

Sincerely yours,

Signed by: 

Lawrence J. Dyckman:

Director, Natural Resources and Environment:



[1] U.S. General Accounting Office, Federal Food Safety and Security 
System: Fundamental Restructuring Is Needed to Address Fragmentation 
and Overlap, GAO-04-588T (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 30, 2004).

[2] U.S. General Accounting Office, Results-Oriented Government: 
Shaping the Government to Meet 21st Century Challenges, GAO-03-1168T 
(Washington, D.C.: Sept. 17, 2003).