(Washington, DC) – U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) today called for a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study into the feasibility of creating a single food agency to increase efficiencies, reduce costs and improve safety. Each year 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from eating unsafe food. The annual costs associated with these foodborne illnesses, including medical costs and productivity losses from missed work, are about $14 billion.
“The fragmented federal food safety system has raised concerns for decades. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has long reported that the system is in need of transformation and has resulted in inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources,” the Senators wrote. “Recognizing the need to improve food safety oversight effectiveness and efficiency, several other countries have taken steps to streamline and consolidate their food safety functions…Given concerns about the fragmented federal food safety system in the United States and potential lessons to be learned from consolidation efforts in other countries, we request GAO’s assistance.”
In January, the Senators joined with U.S. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in introducing the Safe Food Act of 2015, which would create a single, independent food safety agency. Currently food safety oversight is split up among 15 different agencies, resulting in a patchwork where no single voice guides industry, retailers and consumers. The Safe Food Act would: transfer and consolidate food safety authorities for inspections, enforcement and labeling into a single food safety agency; provide authority to require the recall of unsafe food; require risk assessments and preventive control plans to reduce adulteration; authorize enforcement actions to strengthen contaminant performance standards; improve foreign food import inspections; and require full food traceability to better identify sources of outbreaks
Text of the letter is below.
June 18, 2015
The Honorable Gene L. Dodaro
U.S. Government Accountability Office
441 G Street NW
Washington, DC 20548
Dear Mr. Dodaro:
We ask the Government Accountability Office to undertake a review of models for consolidating the U.S. food safety system. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from eating unsafe food. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service has estimated that the annual costs associated with foodborne illnesses, including medical costs and productivity losses from missed work, are about $14 billion.
The safety and quality of the U.S. food supply is governed by a highly complex system that has evolved on a piecemeal basis over many decades, typically in response to either health threats or economic crises. The result is a fragmented legal and organizational structure that gives responsibility for specific food commodities to different agencies and provides significantly different authorities to enforce food safety laws. Currently, at least 30 laws are collectively administered by 15 federal agencies. The agencies with primary food safety oversight responsibility are USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FSIS is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry, and processed egg products, and FDA is responsible for virtually all other food.
The fragmented federal food safety system has raised concerns for decades. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has long reported that the system is in need of transformation and has resulted in inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources. GAO has included federal oversight of food safety both on its High Risk List since 2007 and in its annual report to Congress, starting in 2011, on federal initiatives that have duplicative goals or activities.
Over the years, many proposals have been made to consolidate the U.S. food safety system, but no action to date has been taken. For example, consolidation of the U.S. food safety system has been proposed in legislation introduced in the Congress, reports issued by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Commission on the Public Service, and in several GAO reports and testimonies. In January 2015, Senate and House companion bills were introduced proposing the creation of a single, independent federal food safety agency. In fiscal year 2016 the President’s budget for the first time proposed consolidating USDA’s and FDA’s food safety functions within HHS. These and other proposals have offered some preliminary observations on the benefits of consolidation, but a detailed analysis of alternative organizational structures has not been conducted.
Recognizing the need to improve food safety oversight effectiveness and efficiency, several other countries have taken steps to streamline and consolidate their food safety functions, including Canada, Denmark, the European Union, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
Given concerns about the fragmented federal food safety system in the United States and potential lessons to be learned from consolidation efforts in other countries, we request GAO’s assistance in addressing the following questions:
1) What alternative organizational structures have been identified to streamline and consolidate the U.S. food safety system?
2) What are the costs and benefits associated with each alternative and what implementation challenges exist, if any?
3) What lessons learned and best practices can be gleaned from other countries’ efforts to consolidate their food safety functions and systems?
In addition, as a result of 2008 Farm Bill provisions amending the Federal Meat Inspection Act, regulatory responsibility for catfish inspection will fall to FSIS once FSIS issues final regulations for a mandatory catfish examination and inspection program.
GAO, High Risk Series: An Update, GAO-07-310 (Washington, D.C.: January 2007).
GAO, Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue, GAO-11-441T (Washington, D.C: March 2011).
Safe Food Act of 2015, S. 287, 114th Cong. (2015); Safe Food Act of 2015, H.R. 609, 114th Cong. (2015).
GAO, Food Safety: Experiences of Seven Countries in Consolidating Their Food Safety Systems, GAO-05-212 (Washington, D.C.: February 2005) and GAO, Food Safety: Selected Countries’ Systems Can Offer Insights into Ensuring Import Safety and Responding to Foodborne Illness, GAO-08-794 (Washington, D.C.: June 2008).