GAO: 15 agencies in charge of 30 food-related laws

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The haphazard government approach to food safety remains a roadblock to a cohesive national strategy on food regulation.

A new law that took effect in January created a working group of officials from the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture, and other federal agencies. The working group was an important step toward interagency collaboration, but it ignored a major concern—the fragmentation in food oversight among multiple agencies. About 15 agencies administer 30 food-related laws.

The 2010 recall of 500 million eggs due to salmonella contamination highlighted the challenges with the current system. The FDA is responsible for eggs in their shells, while the Food Safety and Inspection Service is responsible for eggs processed into egg products. The Department of Agriculture sets quality standards for eggs, but does not test them for bacteria. The USDA also inspects laying hens at birth to ensure they are salmonella-free, but the FDA oversees the chicken feed they eat.

“Fragmentation in the nation’s food safety system results in inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources,” a report by the Government Accountability Office said.

The GAO suggested alternative organizational structures, like a single food safety agency, a food inspection agency, and a data collection and risk analysis center. But reorganization would be a complex process and could lead to short-term disruptions and transition costs, the watchdog warned.

While the new food safety law strengthens the FDA’s authority and increases the focus on preventing food contamination—instead of just responding to it—the law does not apply to the federal food safety system as a whole and does not change the current safety structure. In particular, it does not address USDA’s responsibilities. The USDA is responsible for meat, poultry, processed egg products, and catfish, while the FDA ensures the safety of almost all other food and seafood.

FAST FACT: Food safety is still a challenge because of increasing food imports, the rising popularity of raw and unprocessed foods, and growing populations susceptible to food-borne illness, like elderly Americans and people with compromised immune systems.

Following are other new watchdog reports released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), various federal Offices of Inspector General (OIG), and other government entities.

HEALTH CARE

  • The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services fraud and abuse tip-line resolved the majority of complaints, 88 percent, within one yea. But the processing of complaints was hindered by the lack of information and inefficient processes, a report found. (DHHS Inspector General)

MISC.

  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency is planning a new process to recover improper payments during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Controls to catch fraud and abuse were relaxed to get money out quickly, but there were 160,000 cases of improper payments totaling $643 million. In 2007 a federal district judge ordered FEMA to discontinue its recoupment process until changes were made. (DHS Inspector General)

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