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Fragmented food safety system has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources

Why Area Is Important



The fragmented federal oversight of food safety has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources. Fifteen federal agencies collectively administer at least 30 food related laws. Budget obligations for the two primary food safety agencies—the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)—totaled over $1.6 billion in fiscal year 2009. USDA is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry, processed egg products, and catfish and FDA is responsible for virtually all other food, including seafood. Three major trends also create food safety challenges: (1) a substantial and increasing portion of the U.S. food supply is imported, (2) consumers are eating more raw and minimally processed foods, and (3) segments of the population that are particularly susceptible to food-borne illnesses, such as older adults and immune-compromised individuals, are growing.

What GAO Found


For more than a decade, GAO has reported on the fragmented nature of federal food safety oversight. The 2010 nationwide recall of more than 500 million eggs due to Salmonella contamination highlights this fragmentation. FDA is generally responsible for ensuring that shell eggs, including eggs at farms such as those where the outbreak occurred, are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled and FSIS is responsible for the safety of eggs processed into egg products. In addition, while USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service sets quality and grade standards for the eggs, such as Grade A, it does not test the eggs for microbes such as Salmonella. Further, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service helps ensure the health of the young chicks that are supplied to egg farms, but FDA oversees the safety of the feed they eat.

Oversight is also fragmented in other areas of the food safety system. For example, the 2008 Farm Bill assigned USDA responsibility for catfish, thus splitting seafood oversight between USDA and FDA. In September 2009, GAO also identified gaps in food safety agencies' enforcement and collaboration on imported food. Specifically, the import screening system used by the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) does not notify FDA's or FSIS's systems when imported food shipments arrive at U.S. ports. Without access to time-of-arrival information, FDA and FSIS may not know when shipments that require examinations arrive at the port, which could increase the risk that unsafe food could enter U.S. commerce. GAO recommended that the CBP Commissioner ensure that CBP's new screening system communicates time-of-arrival information to FDA's and FSIS's screening systems and GAO continues to monitor their actions.

Actions Needed


GAO has made numerous recommendations intended to address the fragmented federal oversight of the nation's food supply. One key recommendation in October 2001 was to reconvene the President's Council on Food Safety, which disbanded earlier that year. In response, the President created the Food Safety Working Group in 2009 to coordinate federal efforts and develop goals to make food safer. Through the working group, which is co-chaired by the Secretaries of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, federal agencies have begun collaborating in certain areas that cross regulatory jurisdictions—improving produce safety, reducing Salmonella contamination, and developing food safety performance measures. However, as a presidentially appointed working group its future is uncertain, and the experience of the Council on Food Safety, which disbanded less than 3 years after it was created, illustrates that this type of approach can be short lived. In addition, developing a results-oriented governmentwide performance plan for food safety, commissioning a detailed analysis of alternative organizational structures, and enacting comprehensive risk-based food safety legislation could help address fragmentation. In January 2007, GAO said that what remains to be done is to develop a governmentwide performance plan that is mission based, has a results orientation, and provides a cross-agency perspective. In July 2009, the Food Safety Working Group issued its key findings—a set of goals and actions for improving food safety. While the key findings are mission based and offer a cross-agency perspective, they are not fully results oriented. Further, the working group has not provided information about the resources that are needed to achieve its goals. As a next step, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with the federal agencies that have food safety responsibilities, should develop a governmentwide performance plan for food safety that includes results-oriented goals and performance measures and a discussion of strategies and resources. Without a governmentwide performance plan for food safety, decision makers do not have a comprehensive picture of the federal government's performance on this crosscutting issue. In addition, the federal government does not formulate an overall budget for food safety, making it difficult for Congress to monitor the federal resources allocated to federal food safety oversight.

GAO, in October 2001, suggested that Congress consider commissioning the National Academy of Sciences or a blue ribbon panel to conduct a detailed analysis of alternative food safety organizational structures. A detailed analysis has yet to be commissioned and GAO reiterated its suggestion to Congress in February 2011. GAO and other organizations have identified alternative organizational structures that could be analyzed in more detail, including:

  • a single food safety agency, either housed within an existing agency or established as an independent entity, that assumes responsibility for all aspects of food safety at the federal level;
  • a single food safety inspection agency that assumes responsibility for food safety inspection activities, but not other activities, under an existing department, such as USDA or FDA;
  • a data collection and risk analysis center for food safety that consolidates data collected from a variety of sources and analyzes it at the national level to support risk-based decision making; and
  • a coordination mechanism that provides centralized, executive leadership for the existing organizational structure, led by a central chair who would be appointed by the President and have control over resources.

GAO, the National Academy of Sciences, and others have also suggested that Congress enact comprehensive risk-based food safety legislation. In May 2004, GAO reported that such legislation can provide the foundation for focusing federal oversight and resources on the most important food safety problems from a public health perspective. New food safety legislation that was signed into law in January 2011 strengthens a major part of the food safety system and expands FDA's oversight authority. However, the law does not apply to the federal food safety system as a whole and GAO reiterated its suggestion for comprehensive, risk-based food safety legislation in February 2011. The European Union adopted comprehensive food safety legislation in 2004 intended to create a single, transparent set of food safety rules.

Although reducing fragmentation in federal food safety oversight is not expected to result in significant cost savings, new costs may be avoided by preventing further fragmentation, as illustrated by the approximately $30 million for fiscal years 2011 and 2012 that USDA officials had said they would have to spend developing and implementing the agency's new congressionally mandated catfish inspection program. Subsequently, no funding was proposed for the program in the President's fiscal year 2012 budget because of the need for considerable stakeholder engagement and regulatory development before its adoption and implementation. In addition, GAO has reported that user fees are means of financing federal services that can be designed to reduce the burden on tax payers and promote economic efficiency and equity. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that if FSIS charged user fees, federal revenues would increase by $902 million in fiscal year 2011 and could offset inspection costs. FDA has proposed user fees in its fiscal year 2011 congressional budget request that it estimates could increase revenues by almost $194 million and could enable the agency to expand its food safety efforts.

GAO recognizes that reorganizing federal food safety responsibilities is a complex process. Further, GAO's work on other agency mergers and transformations indicates that reorganizing food safety could have short-term disruptions and transition costs. However, reducing fragmentation and overlap could result in a number of nonfinancial benefits. GAO reported in March 2004 that integrating food safety oversight can create synergy and economies of scale and can provide more focused and efficient efforts to protect the nation's food supply. In June 2008, GAO also reported that other countries that reorganized their food safety systems have experienced additional benefits, such as improved public confidence in the systems. For example, GAO reported that industry and consumer stakeholders generally had positive views of the reorganized food safety systems and said that transparency had improved.

Framework for Analysis


The information contained in this analysis is based on the related GAO products listed under the "Related GAO Products" tab. In addition, GAO reviewed relevant food safety reports and legislation, and interviewed officials from USDA, FDA, and the Office of Management and Budget. GAO also collected and analyzed information about the Food Safety Working Group, its activities, and its plan for food safety, as well as alternative organizational structures for food safety oversight.

Area Contact


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