GAO recommends consolidation of food safety system

The federal food safety system should be consolidated to improve accountability, responsiveness and ability for congressional oversight, according to the General Accounting Office.

GAO said too many agencies were involved in aspects of food safety and that "arbitrary jurisdictional lines of authority" diminish the accountability and responsiveness of the federal food safety system. In a response to follow-up questions from a recent House subcommittee hearing, GAO recommended creating a new agency to handle all food safety functions. GAO auditors also laid out pros and cons of existing agencies in case Congress chose to consolidate inspection and other safety responsibilities under either the Agriculture Department or the Food and Drug Administration.

"The food safety laws that we're operating under were drafted nearly 100 years ago," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington nutrition advocacy group. "It is certainly time to modernize the structures that regulate the food supply. This is critical not only to improve food safety, but to protect against threats of bioterrorists."

The system is a result of legislative baby steps that have led to the placing of food products under the jurisdiction of one agency or another with little logic. According to Subcommittee Chairwoman Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., FDA inspects closed-face meat sandwiches, cheese pizzas, beef soup and chicken broth while the Agriculture Department inspects open-face meat sandwiches, pepperoni pizza, chicken soup and beef broth.

Bryce Quick, assistant administrator of the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said that Agriculture and FDA have two entirely different inspection systems. Quick said the separation of areas of jurisdiction has not hindered USDA from preventing the dissemination of hazardous products. "We talk to FDA on a daily basis," he said. "[Bovine spongiform encephalopathy] was a classic example of the cooperation that can take place, and it worked and it's working now. There have been numerous examples of how we are working together."

Lawrence Dyckman, director of natural resources and environment at GAO, said that while cooperation between agencies is important, consolidation would eliminate possible confusion, gaps or overlap. "What we're saying is that we don't see a need to have two agencies basically split the responsibility for food safety," he said. "[Cooperation] might have improved, but why have a divided function if it's not necessary? There's no good reason."

While GAO, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other groups have called for a drastic overhaul of the food safety system, they are skeptical of the likelihood of legislative changes. "I don't think it's very likely unless we have a major health crisis," Dyckman said. "I surely don't hope that we have such a crisis, but to be practical, most government change occurs when there is a crisis."

DeWaal said she was confident that the government would eventually respond. "In the absence of that kind of crisis, it's a long-term proposition, but one that in the long run will prevail. Many countries are moving to unify the food safety system, and the U.S. doesn't want to be the last one to do this. If they want to stay competitive and effective, it is a necessary transition."

Consolidating the two programs under an existing agency may be a possibility in the case of a budget crisis, Dyckman said, adding that GAO favors FDA because it does not have the "stigma of the appearance of a conflict of interest" between the promotion of a product and the monitoring of its safety. The Center for Science in the Public Interest also believes the FDA would make a better watchdog agency.

"I believe food safety should be handled by a health agency," DeWaal said, "not an agency that promotes agriculture."

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