April 24, 2014

Revamping Federal Oversight of Food Safety

FPBCongressThe Government Accountability Office (GAO) released their 2013 report on high risk areas of oversight. Food safety was one of those areas. We reported on this over the weekend, along with Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro’s response to the government. But the document itself is worth examining more closely.

The GAO states that federal oversight of food safety is fragmented and inconsistent. Indeed, the FDA, USDA, FSIS, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service all play a part in overseeing the egg production system, for example. There was a recall of more than 500 million eggs in 2010 that highlighted this problem. They also state that there are three trends that create food safety challenges: a substantial portion of our food supply is imported; consumers are eating more raw and minimally processed foods; and growing segments of the population are increasingly susceptible to foodborne illness as we age.

While the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) will strength the system, since it shifts the focus of the FDA from responding to contamination to preventing it, the Act doesn’t apply to the food safety system as a whole. It also does not affect the USDA.

The GAO would like to see the President reconvene the Council on Food Safety. He did establish the FOod Safety Working Group in 2009 to coordinate federal efforts to keep food safe. Agencies involved in that group are working to improve produce safety, reduce Salmonella contamination, and develop food safety performance measures. But those are just first steps. The agencies need a “government-wide performance plan for food safety that includes results-oriented goals and performance measures and information about resources.”

The report also states and there is fragmentation in coordinating messages about recalls of food products during multistate outbreaks of foodborne illness. The FDA needs to develop a plan for crisis communications wit other agencies and consult with the USDA about advising consumers about recalls. In addition, Congress should monitor the Working Group and FSMA and may need to do something about amending FDA’s and USDA’s existing authorities.

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