Federal report recommends 'national strategy' to address fragmented food safety system

Dive Brief:

  • The federal government's oversight of food safety is too fragmented, with 16 federal agencies responsible for various aspects of food safety and quality, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last month. The report calls for a "national strategy" to address this problem and streamline the system.
  • Because of the high potential for disastrous consequences, federal oversight of food safety system has been on the GAO's list of areas "at high risk for fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or most in need of transformation" since 2007.
  • Government officials have been taking action to address the fragmentation of food safety oversight since 2014. The report is a performance audit started after a meeting on how to address the issue took place last June. While GAO found progress has been made, there are still problems due to the lack of a unified strategy. 

Dive Insight:

The federal government's system of food safety oversight — which largely rests between the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Food and Drug Administration — can be confusing. The GAO report illustrates the confusion with the example of frozen pizza: While frozen cheese pizza is regulated by the FDA, FSIS regulates manufacturers of frozen pizza with meat.

Food safety and regulation doesn't easily and entirely fit under the umbrella of any one federal agency. With so many different offices handling very particular pockets of inspection, it's easy to understand why food safety policy and regulation is so disjointed. Government agencies that are working together might not be able to work well in sync because of competing priorities and different overarching missions.

There have been many efforts to take food safety beyond more agency coordination. U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) proposed legislation in 1999, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2015 to establish the Food Safety Administration, which would have created a single agency to handle all food safety inspections and regulations currently spread across the federal government. Similar legislation has not yet been proposed in the 115th Congress.

Creating a new agency to handle food safety seems unlikely to gain traction with the current administration and Congress, both of which appear averse to increasing regulations. Although a new single agency to handle all things food safety could actually streamline governmental oversight, there is nothing to indicate a change is coming in the near future. 

Although food safety planning and testing is vital to maintaining the quality of food, adding new regulatory requirements to agencies may not be popular with the Republican-controlled Congress.The House Freedom Caucus proposed doing away with existing regulations dealing with food safety under the new administration, including programs in the Food Safety Modernization Act that aim to prevent intentional adulteration.

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Filed Under: Food Safety Policy