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Government Watchdog Calls for National Strategy to Improve Food Safety Oversight

A recent report by the watchdog Government Accountability Office calls for the development of a national strategy to address fragmentation in the federal food safety oversight system. The agency believes such a strategy should establish sustained leadership at the highest level of the administration with authority to implement the strategy and be accountable for its progress. It would also need to identify roles and responsibilities; identify staffing and funding requirements as well as the sources of funding for its implementation; establish milestones with timeframes, baselines and metrics to monitor progress; be sufficiently flexible to incorporate change identified through monitoring and evaluation of progress; include short-term actions focusing on preventing outbreak of food-borne illnesses to gain traction in improving the U.S. food safety system; and involve all relevant stakeholders.

According to the GAO, of the 16 federal agencies that collectively administer at least 30 federal laws governing food safety and quality the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service have primary responsibility for food safety oversight. The FDA is responsible for ensuring that all domestic and imported foods, excluding meat, poultry, catfish and processed egg products, are safe, wholesome, sanitary and properly labelled. FSIS, meanwhile, is tasked with, among other things, ensuring the U.S. domestic and imported commercial supply of meat, poultry, catfish and egg products is safe, wholesome and correctly labelled and packaged. Other important agencies include the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is responsible for preventing the introduction or dissemination of plant pests and livestock pests or diseases, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which inspects food and other products for compliance with U.S. laws and regulations and assists all federal agencies in enforcing their regulations at the border.

For more than four decades the GAO has reported on the fragmented nature of federal food safety oversight. For example, the agency has described how the FDA is generally responsible for ensuring that eggs in their shells (referred to as shell eggs) are safe, wholesome and properly labelled; FSIS is responsible for the safety of eggs processed into egg products; the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service sets quality and grade standards for shell eggs, such as Grade A; APHIS manages the programme that helps ensure laying hens are free from Salmonella at birth; and the FDA oversees the safety of the feed that hens eat. In another notorious example, the GAO has reported how the FDA has primary responsibility for regulating manufacturers of frozen cheese pizzas, FSIS has primary responsibility for regulating manufacturers of frozen pizzas with meat, and multiple additional federal agencies play roles in regulating the components of either type of pizza.

Similarly, past GAO reports have examined how FSIS inspects manufacturers of packaged open-face meat or poultry sandwiches (i.e., those with one slice of bread) but the FDA inspects manufacturers of packaged closed-face meat or poultry sandwiches (i.e., those with two slices of bread). However, establishments producing closed-faced meat or poultry sandwiches intended for export to Canada can be inspected for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point compliance by FSIS under a voluntary inspection programme and samples collected by FSIS are tested for certain pathogens by AMS.

Fragmentation in federal food safety oversight has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective co-ordination and inefficient use of resources. Notably, the GAO observed in January 2007 that a challenge for the 21st century was to find a way for federal agencies with food safety responsibilities to integrate the existing web of food safety programmes and strategically manage their portfolios to promote the safety and integrity of the U.S. food supply.

In its prior work, the GAO has identified various options for reducing fragmentation and overlap in food safety oversight, including alternative organisational structures. These options include establishing a single food safety agency, a food safety inspection agency, a data collection and risk analysis centre, and a co-ordination mechanism led by a central chair. Congress may also want to assess the need for comprehensive, uniform, risk-based food safety legislation or to amend the FDA’s and USDA’s existing authorities.

A number of actions have been taken over the past decade to improve the federal food safety oversight system, including the establishment of the Food Safety Working Group in March 2009, the enactment of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act in January 2011, and an update also in January 2011 of the statutory framework for performance management in the federal government. In addition, the FDA and FSIS are involved in nine collaborative mechanisms to facilitate inter-agency co-ordination on food safety, although none of those mechanisms provide for broad-based, centralised collaboration.

The GAO has identified five criteria that must be fully met in order for the federal food safety oversight system to be removed from its high-risk list, but as of February 2015 that criteria had either been partially met or not met at all. Partially met criteria include a demonstrated strong commitment and top leadership support, an agency’s capacity (people and resources) to resolve the risk(s), and an ability to demonstrate progress in implementing corrective measures and resolving the high-risk area. However, a corrective action plan that defines the root cause of the problem, identifies solutions and provides for substantially completing corrective measures does not yet exist, while a programme to monitor and independently validate the effectiveness and sustainability of corrective measures is also absent.

Accordingly, the GAO is calling on all appropriate entities within the Executive Office of the President, in consultation with all relevant federal agencies and other stakeholders, to develop a national strategy that states the purpose of the strategy, establishes high-level sustained leadership, identifies resource requirements, monitors progress, and identifies short- and long-term actions to improve the federal food safety oversight system. The USDA stated in response to this recommendation that it is not yet convinced that developing and implementing a national strategy would result in significantly different outcomes in protecting public health by preventing food-borne illness with its partners. However, the USDA also noted that, should major changes to the federal food safety system be proposed, it is imperative that they are data-driven, well-designed, collaborative and ultimately continue to enable the United States to have the safest food supply in the world. Even with the USDA’s reservations, the GAO continues to believe that a national strategy would provide a comprehensive framework for considering organisational changes and resource decisions to improve the federal food safety oversight system.

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