U.S. oversight of food safety is still scattered 15 agencies administering 30 different laws, but the Food and Drug Administration has taken positive first steps toward improving food safety, according to a Government Accountability Office report released this afternoon.
The serious flaws in food safety system were evident in recent months, as tainted foods repeatedly found their way to the U.S. consumer's kitchen. Recently, focus has been on the Department of Agriculture, as the number of recalls of beef due to E. coli contamination continue to grow more numerous. The FDA has oversight over many aspects of the food supply that the USDA doesn't, and its staff and budget are much less than that of the USDA.
Here is the GAO's summary of its latest findings:
FDA has opportunities to better leverage its resources. Efficient use of resources is particularly important at FDA because we found that its food safety workload has increased in the past decade, while its food safety staff and funding have not kept pace. GAO has recommended that FDA establish equivalence agreements with other countries to shift some oversight responsibility to foreign governments, explore the potential for certifying third party inspections, and consider accrediting private laboratories to inspect seafood, among other actions. We also reported that FDA and USDA conduct similar inspections at 1,451 facilities that produce foods regulated by both agencies. To reduce overlaps, we recommended that, if cost-effective, FDA enter into an agreement to commission USDA inspectors at such facilities. FDA incorporated some of these recommendations in its Food Protection Plan.
FDAs Food Protection Plan also proposes some positive first steps intended to enhance its oversight of food safety. Specifically, FDA requests authority to order food safety recalls and issue additional preventive controls for high-risk foods, both of which GAO has previously recommended. However, more specific information about its strategies and the resources FDA needs to implement the plan would facilitate congressional oversight. FDA officials acknowledge that implementing the Food Protection Plan will require additional resources. Without a clear description of resources and strategies, it will be difficult for Congress to assess the likelihood of the plans success in achieving its intended results. The Science Board cites numerous management challenges that have contributed to FDAs inability to fulfill its mission, including a lack of a coherent structure and vision, insufficient capacity in risk assessment, and inadequate human capital recruitment and retention. In light of these challenges, GAO has identified through other work some tools that can help agencies improve their performance over time. For example, a Chief Operating Officer/Chief Management Officer can help an agency address longstanding management problems that are undermining its ability to accomplish its mission and achieve results. In addition, a well-designed commission can produce specific practical recommendations that Congress can enact. Critical success factors that can help ensure a commissions success include a statutory basis with adequate authority, a clear purpose and timeframe, leadership support, an open process, a balanced membership, accountability, and resources.
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