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Food safety oversight remains a high priority

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Federal oversight of food safety remains on the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s list of high-risk areas as federal agencies have not fully followed GAO recommendations to develop a coordinated governmentwide strategy to ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply. 

The GAO added federal oversight of food safety to its list of areas at high risk for fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement, or most in need of transformation in January 2007 because of risks to the economy and public health and safety, according to a GAO report published on Monday. In March 2011, the GAO recommended that the White House Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with the federal agencies having food safety responsibilities, develop a governmentwide performance plan for food safety. 

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the federal agencies with primary responsibility for food safety oversight, have taken some actions to address fragmentation in the federal food safety oversight system, and HHS has updated its strategic plan to address interagency coordination on food safety, according to the GAO. However, USDA has not fully implemented GAO’s December 2014 recommendation that it describe interagency collaboration on food safety in its strategic and performance planning documents, according to the report. 

“A risk management model could be outlined through a national strategy to ensure a consistent approach across food commodities,” the GAO determined in its report based on interviews with experts. “For example, a risk management model could be used to inform a decision to modify the statutes that the Food Safety and Inspection Service implements, such as the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Improvement Act, so that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspection model is risk-based. This would help to align the authorities of USDA with the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, as amended by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which outlines the Food and Drug Administration’s responsibilities. Moreover, ensuring a consistent approach to risk management across food commodities could benefit industry by reducing the resources companies expend for regulatory compliance rather than for managing risk.”

However, the USDA is not convinced that developing and implementing a national strategy would result in significantly different outcomes in protecting public health by preventing foodborne illness, according to the report. The agency also expressed concern about implications that many of the possible actions to include in a national strategy do not require congressional approval and can be taken by executive branch agencies without such approval, which the USDA disputes. 

The USDA also argued that food safety should no longer be listed as high risk, but the GAO said its criteria for removing federal food safety oversight from its high-risk list have not been fully addressed yet.