Food Safety:

Fundamental Changes Needed to Improve the Nation's Food Safety System

T-RCED-98-24: Published: Oct 8, 1997. Publicly Released: Oct 8, 1997.

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Robert A. Robinson
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the fundamental weaknesses that need correcting in order to achieve a fully effective food safety system, and the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) associated regulatory authority.

GAO noted: (1) the existing federal system to ensure a safe food supply is fragmented, characterized by a maze of often inconsistent legal and regulatory requirements implemented by 12 different federal agencies; (2) of the 12 agencies, 6 have major roles in carrying out food safety and quality activities; (3) this structure necessitates extensive coordination to minimize duplication of effort, prevent gaps in regulatory coverage, and avoid conflicting actions; (4) coordination has sometimes broken down, allowing unsanitary and other unsafe conditions to persist in some food processing plants; (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 rather 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 the food safety concerns that existed at the turn of the century, not those that the United States faces today; (9) a new structure for food safety inspection and enforcement, based on uniform enforcement authorities and an assessment of the risk that food products pose, is needed; (10) federal regulations issued in July 1996 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; (11) the system will be phased in over an 18- to 42-month period, depending on the plant's size; (12) the new regulations also require that meat and poultry slaughterhouses conduct microbial tests for E.coli (a general indicator of sanitary conditions) but do not require meat and poultry processing plants to conduct similar testing; and (13) requiring HACCP and microbial testing is important in moving towards a more scientific approach, but it does not address the fundamental problem of multiple jurisdictions nor the inefficiencies caused by mandating the frequency of inspections for some products and requiring little or no inspection or testing of other products.

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