Problems in oversight of food safety

Food safety oversight agencies often inconsistent and ineffective, says GAO

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A number of high-profile public health scares involving unsafe food have highlighted the failure of the 15 agencies that administer more than 30 laws related to food safety. Critics have particularly faulted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees four-fifths of the U.S. food supply. Last year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) added regulation of food safety to its list of “high risk” programs that demand attention. The federal government’s effort has been plagued by “inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources,” according to the GAO. During emergencies — such as the E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks earlier this year and the contaminated pet food fiasco of 2007 — federal agencies often do not have the authority to mandate food recalls. As the GAO pointed out, these agencies “do not know how promptly and completely companies are carrying out recalls, do not promptly verify that recalls have reached all segments of the distribution chain, and use procedures to alert consumers to a recall that may not be effective.” Lack of regulatory power has not been the only problem. The GAO reported in January 2008 that even though the food safety workload of the FDA has increased in the past decade, its food safety staff and resources have not. The problems involve not only food products produced domestically, but the flood of food arriving from overseas. Contaminated items originating in China, including milk, have been especially worrisome; key ingredients in the tainted pet food originated in China as well. “U.S. consumers often take for granted that the food they purchase will be safe . . . but the standards of other countries and the lack of U.S. food inspectors . . . too often proves them wrong,” said Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. The GAO has called for a fundamental re-examination of the food safety system and has urged enactment of comprehensive legislation that might reorganize the food safety effort and give the government more regulatory power. The FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) press offices declined to comment; however, in July 2008 testimony, the FDA’s associate commissioner for foods, David Acheson, told Congress that his agency has worked with a host of other government, industry, and consumer groups “to significantly strengthen the nation’s food safety and food defense system across the entire distribution chain.”

Follow-up:
The Office of Management and Budget, in concert with the FDA, USDA, Department of Homeland Security, and other agencies, has convened an interagency group to address the food safety issue. The FDA launched a Food Protection Plan in November 2007, and recently said significant progress had been made — including better targeting of inspections and closer cooperation with the states. In late June, President Bush signed a supplemental appropriation for FDA that included $72 million in new money for food protection. In early November 2008, though, the GAO identified food safety as one of 13 “urgent issues” that are “critical and time sensitive and require prioritized federal action” by the new Congress and the new administration. President-Elect Obama has indicated that food safety would be a priority for the FDA under his administration.

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