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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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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.


Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
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.
Closed – Not Implemented
The Congress has thus far not acted to pass comprehensive, uniform, and risk-based food safety legislation.
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.
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 December 2021, as far as staff can ascertain, the Commission has not been 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 March 2024, it remained unaddressed.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
President's Council on Food Safety 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.
Closed – Not Implemented
As of November 2006, the council has not yet reconvened.

Full Report

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