Food Safety:

Fundamental Changes Needed to Improve Food Safety

RCED-97-249R: Published: Sep 9, 1997. Publicly Released: Sep 9, 1997.

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GAO provided information to Congress on its findings and recommendations in a number of reports on the food safety issue.

GAO noted that: (1) the existing federal system to ensure a safe food supply is fragmented, characterized by a complex maze of often inconsistent legal and regulatory requirements implemented by 12 different federal agencies, of which 6 have major roles in carrying out food safety and quality activities; (2) this structure necessitates extensive coordination to minimize duplication of effort, prevent gaps in regulatory coverage, and avoid conflicting actions; (3) GAO's work has shown that the responsible agencies have not always been successful; (4) unsanitary and other unsafe conditions persist in some food processing plants, in part, because coordination efforts have broken down; (5) inconsistencies and illogical differences between the agencies' approaches and enforcement authorities undercut the system's effectiveness; (6) how frequently a food processing plant is inspected and what actions are taken to enforce food safety standards are determined not by a unified, comprehensive assessment of the risk that specific food products pose to public health but by the legislation that governs the responsible agency; (7) past efforts to correct deficiencies in the federal food safety inspection system have fallen short, in part, because they did not address the fundamental problems in the system; (8) agencies continue to operate under different regulatory approaches, have widely disparate budgets and staffs, lack the flexibility needed to respond to changing consumption patterns and emerging food safety issues, and are hampered by laws designed to address concerns that existed at the turn of the century; (9) federal regulations require meat and poultry plants to use a scientific system called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) to ensure the safety of their products; (10) the system will be phased in over an 18- to 42-month period, depending on the plant's size; (11) the new regulations also require that meat and poultry slaughter plants conduct microbial tests but do not require processing plants to conduct similar testing; (12) requiring HACCP and microbial testing is important in moving toward a more scientific approach, but it does not address the fundamental problem of multiple jurisdictions or the inefficiencies caused by mandating the frequency of inspections for some products and requiring little or no inspection or testing of other products; and (13) while no system will be foolproof, a targeted, risk-based approach would allow for the more effective use of resources and ensure a safer food supply.

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