What We Found
A government-wide approach is needed to address fragmentation in the federal food safety oversight system.
Since our 2019 High-Risk Report, ratings for all five criteria remain unchanged.
Leadership commitment: partially met. The U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) have now both demonstrated leadership by updating their strategic and performance-planning documents to better address crosscutting food safety efforts, as we recommended in December 2014.
In addition, according to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the administration is working toward greater coordination among federal agencies through the framework of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), enacted in 2011. For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has demonstrated leadership by continuing to collaborate with USDA on the Produce Safety Rule, which went into effect in 2016, to support the implementation of FSMA.
However, federal agencies have not developed a national plan or strategy for food safety. Specifically, Congress has not directed OMB to develop a government-wide performance plan for food safety to address our December 2014 matter, and the administration has not taken action to develop such a plan or to address our January 2017 recommendation to develop a national strategy for food safety. To more fully demonstrate leadership in this area, the administration should develop for food safety either a government-wide performance plan or, at a minimum, a national strategy.
Capacity: partially met. Federal food safety agencies would benefit from a centralized collaborative mechanism on food safety. In 2009, the President established the Food Safety Working Group (FSWG) to coordinate federal food safety efforts; however, this group has not met in nearly 10 years. Congressional action is required to formalize such a mechanism through statute.
Identifying resources needed to carry out the food safety mission would be an important part of a government-wide performance plan or, at a minimum, a national strategy for food safety. Developing such a plan or strategy that encompasses the contributions of all federal agencies with a food safety role would demonstrate capacity and could address our December 2014 matter and our January 2017 recommendation.
Action plan: not met. Without an action plan, such as a government-wide performance plan or, at a minimum, a national strategy for food safety, Congress, program managers, and other decision makers are hampered in their ability to identify agencies and programs addressing similar missions and to set priorities, allocate resources, and restructure federal efforts, as needed, to achieve long-term goals.
Such a national strategy for food safety that fulfills government-wide planning needs should, among other things, have a clearly stated purpose, establish sustained leadership, identify resource requirements, and describe how progress will be monitored.
Moreover, without a centralized collaborative mechanism—such as the FSWG—to address food safety, agencies do not have a forum to agree on a set of broad-based food safety goals and objectives that could be articulated in a government-wide performance plan or national strategy on food safety.
Monitoring: not met. A government-wide performance plan or, at a minimum, a national strategy for food safety, would facilitate effective monitoring of federal food safety efforts so the efforts would be clear and transparent to Congress and the public.
To understand federal food safety oversight actions, currently Congress, program managers, other decision makers, and the public must access, attempt to make sense of, and reconcile individual documents across the many federal agencies that administer federal statutes governing food safety and quality.
A government-wide performance plan or national strategy would enable Congress and the agencies to monitor the effectiveness of federal food safety programs, particularly those involving more than one agency, and identify areas needing corrective measures.
Demonstrated progress: partially met. Since our 2019 High-Risk Report, USDA has joined HHS in implementing our 2014 recommendations to update their strategic and performance planning documents to more fully describe how they are working with other agencies to achieve their food safety-related goals and objectives.
Nevertheless, the agency-by-agency focus of individual planning documents does not provide the integrated perspective on federal food safety performance necessary to guide congressional and executive branch decision-making and inform the public about federal actions to ensure food safety. Those individual documents could, however, provide building blocks toward the next step of developing a single, government-wide performance plan for food safety.
FDA and USDA also continue to collaborate on food safety through joint working groups and information sharing practices, such as the Interagency Foodborne Outbreak Response Collaboration and the Interagency Risk Assessment Consortium. However, the development of a broader government-wide performance plan or, at a minimum, a national strategy for food safety is still needed and could involve other agencies, such as those that we have identified as having a food safety role.
These agencies include (1) the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which identifies and coordinates the investigation of foodborne illness outbreaks to protect the public health; (2) the Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service, which provides voluntary fee-for-service examinations of seafood for safety and quality; and (3) the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, which, among other things, inspects imports of food products, plants, and live animals for compliance with U.S. law and assists federal agencies in enforcing their regulations at the border.
A government-wide performance plan or national strategy for food safety that includes the multiple agencies with a food safety role could foster sustained progress in addressing fragmentation in the federal food safety oversight system.
The safety and quality of the U.S. food supply, both domestic and imported, are governed by a highly complex system stemming from at least 30 federal laws that are collectively administered by 15 federal agencies. We have long reported on the fragmented federal food safety oversight system, which has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources. We added federal oversight of food safety to the High-Risk List in 2007. In recent years, we have made recommendations aimed at helping to reduce fragmentation in federal food safety oversight.
A 2011 estimate by CDC—its most recent—indicates that, as a result of foodborne illness, roughly one in six Americans (48 million people) gets sick each year, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. CDC data for 2010 to 2014 also show that the number of reported multistate foodborne illness outbreaks is increasing. CDC cites several potential contributors to the increase in reported multistate outbreaks, including greater centralization of food processing practices, wider food distribution, and improved detection and investigation methods.
Since food safety was added to the High-Risk List in 2007, we have made numerous recommendations to enhance collaboration among agencies with food safety responsibilities. As of December 2020, seven of these recommendations are still open. There is one open recommendation that is significant for removing food safety from the High-Risk List:
- In 2017, we recommended that appropriate entities within the Executive Office of the President (EOP), in consultation with relevant federal agencies and other stakeholders, develop a national strategy for food safety that, among other things, establishes high-level sustained leadership, identifies resource requirements, and describes how progress will be monitored. The EOP did not provide comments on our recommendation.
Congressional Actions Needed
As of December 2020, there are three open matters for congressional consideration that are significant for removing food safety from the High-Risk List: two since 2007 and one dating to 2001:
- In 2014, we suggested that Congress consider directing OMB to develop a government-wide performance plan for food safety that includes results-oriented goals and performance measures and a discussion of strategies and resources.
- In 2014, we suggested that Congress consider formalizing the FSWG through statute to help ensure sustained leadership across food safety agencies over time.
- In 2001, we suggested that Congress consider commissioning the National Academy of Sciences or a blue ribbon panel to conduct a detailed analysis of alternative organizational food safety structures and report the results of such an analysis to Congress.
We would accept either a government-wide performance plan or, at a minimum, a national strategy for food safety to address many of the concerns raised in our work.