Who’s Watching What You Eat?

Posted on March 28, 2017
Although the U.S. food supply is generally considered safe, foodborne illness remains a costly, common public health problem. The safety and quality of the food supply is governed by a highly-complex system—involving 16 federal agencies administering over 30 federal laws. Is there a coordinated strategy behind agencies’ management of myriad food program responsibilities? Today’s WatchBlog looks at fragmentation in the federal food safety oversight system. Too many cooks? For years now, we’ve been reporting on the inefficiencies in the federal food safety oversight system. Take the egg, for example. In our past work, we described how
  • the Food and Drug Administration within the Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for ensuring that shell eggs are safe, wholesome, and properly labelled, and oversees the safety of feed that hens eat;
  • the Food Safety and Inspection Service within U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for the safety of eggs processed into egg products; and
  • various other USDA entities are responsible for setting quality and grade standards (like Grade A) for shell eggs and helping to ensure that laying hens are free from Salmonella at birth.
The fragmented federal food safety oversight system causes inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources. Food for thought photo of people handling fruit and meatIn January 2007, because of risks to the economy and to public health and safety, we added the federal oversight of food safety to our High Risk List—a list of areas particularly vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or in need of total transformation. The federal government has taken actions to address food safety since 2007, but results have been mixed. For example:
  • The President established the Food Safety Working Group to coordinate federal efforts and develop goals to make food safer in 2009. Although its work resulted in a number of accomplishments, the group stopped meeting in 2011.
  • The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was enacted in 2011. It represented the largest expansion and overhaul of U.S. food safety authorities since the 1930s. Although the Act called for agencies to coordinate and consult in the development and implementation of certain food safety regulations and programs, it did not provide for centralized, broad-based collaboration across all food safety regulations and programs.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services has taken steps to more fully describe how it works with other agencies to achieve food safety-related goals and objectives. While this is an encouraging step, USDA has not yet undertaken similar steps.
We continue to work on identifying solutions. In 2016, with assistance from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, we convened a meeting at which 19 food safety and government performance experts agreed on the need to develop a national strategy to provide a framework that strengthens the federal food safety oversight system and addresses fragmentation. For all of these reasons, this issue remains on our 2017 High Risk List. We recommended that the Executive Office of the President lead the effort to develop a strategy to improve federal oversight of food safety.