GAO report shows need for single food-safety agency

by Eric Schroeder
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A new report issued by the US Government Accountability Office has determined that the fragmented federal oversight of food safety has caused “inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination and ineffi cient use of resources.”

The report, “Opportunities to reduce potential duplication in government programs, save tax dollars, and enhance revenue,” is the GAO’s first annual report to Congress in response to a new statutory requirement that the GAO identify federal programs, agencies, offices, and initiatives, either within departments or government wide, which have duplicative goals or activities. Congress asked the GAO to conduct the work and to report annually on its findings to better inform government policymakers as they address the rapidly building fiscal pressures facing the national government.

In the section devoted to food safety, the GAO found 15 federal agencies collectively administer at least 30 food-related laws. In illustrating the fragmented nature of federal food-safety oversight, the GAO report pointed to the 2010 nationwide recall of more than 500 million eggs due to Salmonella contamination. In that instance, the Food and Drug Administration was responsible for ensuring that shell eggs were safe and properly labeled, the Food Safety and Inspection Service was responsible for the safety of eggs processed into food products and the Agricultural Marketing Service of the US Dept. of Agriculture was responsible for setting quality and grade standards for the eggs.

To help alleviate some of the problems associated with duplication, overlap and fragmentation, the GAO identified alternative organizational structures that may be analyzed in more detail, including a single foodsafety agency, either housed within an existing agency or established as an independent entity that assumes responsibility for all aspects of food safety at the federal level. Other suggestions include the establishment of a single food safety inspection agency that assumes responsibility for food safety inspection activities, but not other activities, under an existing department, such as the USDA or the FDA, or the establishment of a data collection and risk analysis center for food safety that consolidates data collected from a variety of sources and analyzes it at the national level to support risk-based decision making.

“Although reducing fragmentation in federal food-safety oversight is not expected to result in signifi cant cost savings, new costs may be avoided by preventing further fragmentation, as illustrated by the approximately $30 million for fiscal years 2011 and 2012 that USDA officials had said they would have to spend developing and implementing the agency’s new congressionally mandated catfish inspection program,” the GAO said.

The GAO stressed that reorganizing federal food-safety responsibilities “is a complex process,” noting that reorganization may have “short-term disruptions and transition costs.”

“However, reducing fragmentation and overlap could result in a number of non-financial benefits,” the GAO said. Among those benefits are synergy and economies of scale that may provide more focused and efficient efforts to protect the nation’s food supply, and improved public confidence in the systems, the agency said.

Responding to the report’s findings, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said, “While I do not agree with all of the GAO’s findings, the report does accurately provide additional evidence for the need to consolidate the responsibilities of the 15 federal agencies that currently have jurisdiction over our nation’s food-safety system into a single independent agency. I have introduced legislation that would establish such an agency since 1999, and believe that this is a critical step toward preventing foodborne illnesses and protecting public health.

“A single agency dedicated solely to food safety would eliminate the jurisdictional conflicts, as well as significantly reduce duplication and cost.”

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said the report shows how government may be able to save taxpayers billions of dollars every year without cutting services. “In many cases, smart consolidations will improve service,” he said.

“GAO has identified a mother lode of government waste and duplication that should keep Congress busy for the rest of the year.”

Eric Schroeder is the managing editor of Food Business News, a sister publication of Meat&Poultry.
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