by Marion Nestle
Mar 21 2011

GAO calls for unified food safety system–yet again!

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the congressional watchdog agency, issued a report calling for a single food safety agency (see my post on this). 

The GAO is working hard on this issue.  It has just issued yet another report, this one called FEDERAL FOOD SAFETY OVERSIGHT: Food Safety Working Group Is a Positive First Step but Governmentwide Planning Is Needed to Address Fragmentation.

The report points out some of the alternatives it has suggested in the past:

  • A single food safety agency
  • A food safety inspection agency
  • A data collection and risk analysis center
  • A coordination mechanism led by a central chair

GAO says:

GAO and other organizations have regularly paired proposals for alternative food safety organizations with calls for comprehensive, unified, risk-based food safety legislation.

New food safety legislation that was signed into law in January 2011 strengthens a major part of the food safety system; however, it does not apply to the federal food safety system as a whole or create a new risk-based food safety structure.

GAO recommends that the Director of OMB, in consultation with the federal food safety agencies, develop a governmentwide performance plan for food safety that includes results oriented goals and performance measures for food safety oversight and a discussion about strategies and resources.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, GAO has been making these kinds of recommendations for 20 years.  Does anyone in government listen?  This report notes that the Office of Management and Budget declined to respond to its recommendations.

Responsive government anyone?  This seems like a reorganization well worth trying.  We only have one food supply.  We should not need two agencies to manage its safety risks.

  • Anon

    The other thing that needs to happen is to change the regulatory paradigm to one where the governmental regulatory role is primarily overseeing third parties rather than direct involvement in the food chain as it is currently practiced. We simply can’t afford to increase the public investment to the level required to directly regulate food safety sufficiently. Instead, the large private firms need to bear the burden of ensuring that their products are safe and be under full moral hazard when they don’t. The current regulatory inspection activity must be shifted to private third party testing, verification and accreditation firms whose services are contracted by the large private food producing and processing firms, that are privately bonded, and that are themselves regulated by the governmental regulatory agencies. Direct involvement of government inspectors should be at level of the small private that cannot afford private third party monitoring rather than all firms as is currently practiced. Under the incentives of the current regulatory system, no agency can hire enough inspectors to achieve the level food safety that a properly incentivized third party system could. Rather than continuing to increase appropriations and to apply more regulations subsequent to major failures, we need to back up and examine the overall regulatory system itself. As any systems analyst will tell you, if the system has improperly aligned incentives you will never get the results you want no matter how much money you throw at it.