Food Safety and Security:

Fundamental Changes Needed to Ensure Safe Food

GAO-02-47T: Published: Oct 10, 2001. Publicly Released: Oct 10, 2001.

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Lawrence J. Dyckman
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Tens of millions of Americans become ill and thousands die each year from eating unsafe foods. The current food safety system is a patchwork structure that cannot address existing and emerging food safety risks. The current system was cobbled together over many years to address specific health threats from particular foods. The resulting fragmented organizational and legal structure causes inefficient use of resources, inconsistent oversight and enforcement, and ineffective coordination. Food safety issues must be addressed comprehensively--that is, by preventing contamination through the entire food production cycle, from farm to table. A single, food safety agency responsible for administering a uniform set of laws is needed to resolve long-standing problems with the current system; deal with emerging food safety issues, such as the safety of genetically modified foods or deliberate acts of contamination; and ensure a safe food supply.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Congress has thus far not acted to pass comprehensive, uniform, and risk-based food safety legislation.

    Matter: To provide more efficient, consistent, and effective federal oversight of the nation's food supply, Congress should consider enacting comprehensive, uniform and risk-based food safety legislation.

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The 2002 Farm Security and Rural Investment Act (2002 Farm Bill) established a national Food Safety Commission charged with making specific recommendations for drafting legislative language. Among other things, the Commission was to make recommendations on how to improve the food safety system, create a harmonized, central framework for managing federal food safety programs, and enhance the effectiveness of federal food safety resources. However, as of January 2017, as far as current staff can ascertain, the Commission was never formed, and no recommendations were ever produced. Thus, although Congress acted to create a food safety commission through legislation, the substance of our matter--recommendations for analyzing alternative food safety structures--was not implemented. GAO subsequently made the same matter for congressional consideration in several later products, and the matter also appeared in the annual GAO Duplication, Overlap, and Fragmentation Report. As of December 2020, it remained unaddressed.

    Matter: To provide more efficient, consistent, and effective federal oversight of the nation's food supply, Congress should 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.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: As of November 2006, the council has not yet reconvened.

    Recommendation: Pending Congressional action to establish a single food safety agency and enact uniform, risk-based legislation, the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology should, as joint chairs of the President's Council on Food Safety, reconvene the council to facilitate interagency coordination on food safety regulation and programs.

    Agency Affected: President's Council on Food Safety


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