Revamping Oversight of Food Safety

Video Message: Lisa R. Shames

Lisa R. Shames

Director, Natural Resources and Environment

(202) 512-2649

While this nation enjoys a plentiful and varied food supply that is generally considered to be safe, the fragmented nature of the federal food oversight system undermines the government’s ability to

  • plan more strategically to inspect food production processes,
  • identify and react more quickly to outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, and
  • focus on promoting the safety and integrity of the nation’s food supply.

Fifteen federal agencies collectively administer at least 30 laws related to food safety. The two primary agencies are the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is responsible for meat, poultry, and processed egg products, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for virtually all other foods. GAO has reported that this fragmented systems has caused

  • inconsistent oversight,
  • ineffective coordination, and
  • inefficient use of resources.

For example, federal expenditures on food safety are not based on the volume of foods regulated by the agencies or consumed by the public. USDA programs accounted for the majority of federal expenditures for food safety inspection; however, USDA is responsible for regulating only about 20 percent of the food supply. FDA, which is responsible for regulating about 80 percent of the food supply, accounted for only about 24 percent of expenditures.

FDA has reported that limited resources and authorities challenge its efforts to carry out its food safety responsibilities. For example, FDA’s oversight and enforcement efforts have not kept pace with the growing number of food firms. As a result, FDA has little assurance that companies comply with food-labeling laws and regulations. In addition, while FDA has considered fresh produce safety a priority for many years, resource constraints and other work—including counterterrorism efforts and unplanned events such as food-borne-illness outbreaks—have caused FDA to delay key produce safety activities as well as provide limited oversight of domestic and imported fresh produce.

Highlights of GAO-08-597 (PDF), Highlights of GAO-08-1047 (PDF)

Revamping the oversight of food safety is especially critical in light of the global food supply. About 15 percent of the overall U.S. food supply is imported, as is 60 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables and 75 percent of seafood. In addition, shifting demographics means that more of the U.S. population—including older adults, young children, pregnant women, and immune-compromised individuals—is increasingly susceptible to food-borne illnesses.

^ Back to topWhat Needs to Be Done

Congress and the executive branch should create the environment needed to look across the activities of individual programs and toward the goals the federal government is trying to achieve. To that end, we have made the following recommendations:

Highlights of GAO-07-310 (PDF)

  • The President should reconvene the President’s Council on Food Safety or create another forum in the short term. In the longer term, the President should consider alternative structures for oversight of food safety to facilitate interagency coordination on food safety regulations and programs.
  • The executive branch should develop a governmentwide performance plan that is results-oriented and provides a cross-agency perspective to help ensure agencies’ goals are complementary and to help decision makers balance trade-offs when resource allocation and restructuring decisions are made.
  • Congress should commission the National Academy of Sciences or a blue ribbon panel to conduct a detailed analysis of alternative organizational food safety structures.
  • Congress should enact comprehensive, uniform, and risk-based food safety legislation.

^ Back to topKey Reports

Food Safety: Selected Countries' Systems Can Offer Insights into Ensuring Import Safety and Responding to Foodborne Illness
GAO-08-794, June 10, 2008
Federal Oversight of Food Safety: FDA Has Provided Few Details on the Resources and Strategies Needed to Implement its Food Protection Plan
GAO-08-909T, June 12, 2008
Food Safety: Improvements Needed in FDA Oversight of Fresh Produce
GAO-08-1047, September 26, 2008
Food Labeling: FDA Needs to Better Leverage Resources, Improve Oversight, and Effectively Use Available Data to Help Consumers Select Healthy Foods
GAO-08-597, September 9, 2008
More Reports More Results Toggle