A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office says federal food safety regulation is too fragmented, resulting in "inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources." The report notes the U.S. food supply is governed by at least 30 federal laws administered by 15 federal agencies.
The report recommends the executive branch and federal agencies develop a national strategy for food safety, which would, among other elements, establish sustained leadership, identify resource requirements, and describe how progress will be monitored. The report also says Congress should consider directing the Office of Management and Budget to develop a government-wide performance plan for food safety — and they may want to "consider commissioning a detailed analysis of alternative organizational structures for food safety."
The analysis came as part of the GAO's "High-Risk Series" of 35 federal programs viewed as being particularly vulnerable to mismanagement. Food safety improvement was in the middle of the list, which had government employees' security clearance process at the top and the U.S. Postal Service's financial viability at the bottom. Food safety has been on the GAO's high-risk list since 2007.
Not only has food safety been in this classification since 2007, but the GAO notes it has reported on the fragmented food safety oversight system for more than four decades.
One of the issues keeping food safety on the GAO's high-risk list are the foodborne illnesses that can result from ongoing management problems. The report states the number of reported multistate outbreaks is increasing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 6 Americans — 48 million people — are sickened each year, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne illness.
Additional problems in the food safety oversight arena relate to leadership, capacity, action plan, monitoring and demonstrated progress, the GAO report says. It noted goals in these areas were either partially met or not met since the 2017 report. Straightening out these problems requires better strategy and coordinated planning, the report recommends, along with an overarching national blueprint for food safety.
"Development of a national strategy for food safety could also fulfill these government-wide planning and leadership needs," the report says. "Such a strategy should, among other things, have a clearly stated purpose, establish sustained leadership, identify resource requirements, and describe how progress will be monitored."
While there have calls for years to coordinate federal food safety functions within a single umbrella agency, these efforts haven't gotten anywhere because of congressional inaction and turf battles among the agencies involved. In 2018, the White House proposed consolidating food safety functions within the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a way to improve outcomes and enhance efficiency.
With appointed leadership at the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration — the two agencies responsible for most food safety oversight — changing every so often and with White House policy in flux, it's hard to see how any cohesive voice on food safety will manage to hold sway. And now that FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has abruptly resigned, it's likely to be harder to make more food safety progress within that agency until a new commissioner is in place.
While the patchwork of 30 or more federal food safety regulations administered by 15 federal agencies seems to be a major obstacle to fixing problems the GAO report mentions, it's not clear that establishing one huge food safety agency is the answer. It's more likely Congress will need to delve into the problems, debate the issues, and propose legislation to start heading down a more productive road. That could take several more years, during which food safety oversight is probably going to maintain its position on the GAO's high-risk list.