Key Issues > High Risk > Improving Federal Oversight of Food Safety
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Improving Federal Oversight of Food Safety

A government-wide approach is needed to address fragmentation in the federal food safety oversight system.

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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. For more than four decades, we have 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, moreover, we have made recommendations aimed at helping to reduce fragmentation in federal food safety oversight. As of November 2018, two of three recommendations related to this high-risk area had not been implemented.

A 2011 estimate by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—its most recent estimate—indicates that, as a result of foodborne illness, roughly 1 in 6 Americans (48 million people) gets sick each year, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. CDC data also show that the number of reported multistate foodborne illness outbreaks is increasing. Although multistate outbreaks make up a small proportion of total outbreaks, they affect greater numbers of people. 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.

Improving Federal Oversight of Food Safety

Since our 2017 High-Risk Report, ratings for all five criteria remain unchanged.

Leadership commitment: partially met. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) demonstrated leadership by updating its strategic and performance-planning documents to better address crosscutting food safety efforts, as we recommended in December 2014. As of November 2018, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had not fully implemented our recommendation to update its strategic and planning documents, although it agreed with our recommendation and took some steps to implement it. Moreover, in June 2018, the President proposed reorganizing USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the food safety functions of HHS’s Food and Drug Administration into a single agency. While a reorganization could be a step toward addressing our prior recommendations, additional information about the proposal, as well as additional executive and legislative branch actions, would be needed before such a proposal could be implemented.

Capacity: partially met. USDA has the capacity to more fully address crosscutting food safety efforts in its individual strategic and performance planning documents; however, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) action would be needed to build on HHS and USDA documents to develop a government-wide performance plan on food safety. Such action could address our March 2011 recommendation for a government-wide plan and our December 2014 matter for congressional consideration for government-wide planning. OMB has not taken action to develop such a plan.

Federal food safety agencies also have the capacity to participate in a centralized collaborative mechanism on food safety, such as the Food Safety Working Group (FSWG), which the President established in 2009 to coordinate federal food safety efforts. This group, however, is no longer meeting. Congressional action would be required to formalize such a mechanism through statute.

Action plan: not met. Without a government-wide performance plan 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. Moreover, without a centralized collaborative mechanism—like the FSWG—to address food safety, there is no forum for agencies to reach agreement on a set of broad-based food safety goals and objectives that could be articulated in a government-wide performance plan on food safety.

Development of a national strategy for food safety could also fulfill these government-wide planning and leadership needs. Such a strategy should, among other things, have a clearly stated purpose, establish sustained leadership, identify resource requirements, and describe how progress will be monitored.

Monitoring: not met. Without a government-wide performance plan for food safety, federal food safety efforts are not clear and transparent to the public. Congress, program managers, other decision makers, and the public must first understand what the federal government is currently doing to ensure the safety of the food supply. To do so, they must access, attempt to make sense of, and reconcile individual documents across the many federal agencies responsible for administering the numerous federal statutes governing food safety and quality. A government-wide performance plan would also enable Congress and the agencies to monitor the effectiveness of their food safety programs, particularly those involving more than one agency, and call attention to areas needing corrective measures. The need for government-wide monitoring could also be addressed through a national strategy for food safety.

Demonstrated progress: partially met. In January 2018, USDA and FDA signed an agreement to formalize ongoing coordination and collaboration efforts in the areas of produce safety and regulation of biotechnology products and other areas. This agreement is a positive step. However, the development of a broader government-wide performance plan or a national strategy for food safety is still needed and could involve additional agencies, such as those that we have previously identified as having a role in food safety. These other agencies include (1) the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is responsible for preventing the transmission, dissemination, and spread of foodborne illness 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, including food products, plants, and live animals, for compliance with U.S. law and assists all federal agencies in enforcing their regulations at the border. Such a document could also more comprehensively fulfill government-wide planning and leadership needs and foster sustained progress in addressing fragmentation in the federal food safety oversight system.

Actions are needed to address this high-risk area. Specifically:

  • As we recommended in January 2017, the appropriate entities within the Executive Office of the President (EOP), in consultation with relevant federal agencies and other stakeholders, should develop a national strategy for food safety that, among other things, establishes sustained leadership, identifies resource requirements, and describes how progress will be monitored. The EOP did not provide comments on our recommendation.
  • USDA should implement our priority recommendation to more fully implement GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 requirements by providing in its strategic and performance planning documents additional detail on interagency food safety-related collaborations, as we recommended in December 2014. USDA agreed with this recommendation.

Congressional Actions Needed

Congress should consider directing OMB to develop a government-wide performance plan for food safety that includes results-oriented goals, performance measures, and a discussion of strategies and resources. Congress should also consider formalizing the Food Safety Working Group through statute to help ensure sustained leadership across food safety agencies over time. In addition, if weaknesses in the food safety system persist over the next several years, Congress may wish to consider commissioning a detailed analysis of alternative organizational structures for food safety.

Looking for our recommendations? Click on any report to find each associated recommendation and its current implementation status.
  • portrait of Steve D. Morris
    • Steve D. Morris
    • Director, Natural Resources and Environment
    • (202) 512-3841