by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GAO

Sep 14 2021

USDA’s Harvest Boxes: A GAO analysis

Remember USDA’s Harvest boxes?

I posted about them at least nine times since 2018.  For example:

I thought the program was ill conceived from the start.  Its idea was to collect food from farmers that could not otherwise be sold, and deliver it to private food banks for distribuiton.  There were three types of boxes: produce, dairy products, and meat products.

I worried, and for good reason, about:

  • The enormous expense
  • The complicated and burdensome logistics
  • The burden on food banks
  • Most of he money going to distributors rather than small farmers
  • The lack of choice for recipients
  • The unsustainable focus on charity

Now, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report on the program, “USDA Food Box Program: Key Information and Opportunities to Better Assess Performance,”

The program, it says,

  • Used 243 contractors
  • Delivered more than 176 million boxes of food
  • Reached 78% of US counties, and 89% of counties with more than 20% of the population in poverty

By those standards, I guess, it was a success.

Did it help farmers?  USDA did not collect data on this point so we don’t know, but I don’t think it did.

The report does provide data on several points.

The astronomical overall expense

The absurdly high cost of each of the boxes

The switch from lots of small farmers to a few big ones

From photographs of the contents of the boxes, it’s hard to believe they would cost more than $10 to $20 at a supermarket.  Since so few small farmers were helped by the program, it would have been much cheaper and more efficient to give people coupons for the food or increase SNAP benefits.

But the real purpose of the program was to undermine SNAP.  Fortunately, it did not succeed in that purpose.

Aug 3 2021

GAO tells USDA to get busy on worker safety at meat-packing plants

The summer is a good time to catch up on reports.  Early in July, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO)—a government watchdog agency—sent a firm letter to USDA chiding that agency for not implementing GAO’s recommendations in a timely manner.

In November 2020, we reported that on a government-wide basis, 77 percent of our recommendations made 4 years ago were implemented…[but] USDA’s recommendation implementation rate was 46 percent. As of May 2021, USDA had 171 open recommendations. Fully implementing all open recommendations could significantly improve USDA’s operations.

Among the GAO’s recommendations were two of particular interest:

I.  Strengthen Protections for Wage Earners. See: Workplace Safety and Health: Better Outreach, Collaboration and Information Needed to Help Protect Workers at Meat and Poultry Plants. GAO-18-12. Washington, D.C.: November 9, 2017.

Recommendation: The FSIS Administrator should work with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to assess the implementation of their agencies’ joint memorandum of understanding (MOU) regarding worker safety at meat and poultry plants and make any needed changes to ensure improved collaboration, and also set specific time frames for periodic evaluations of the MOU.

Comment: This is about the failure of OSHA and USDA to protect meat-processing and -packing workers from Covid-19 (for data on the effects of Covid-19 on these workers, see Leah Douglas’s regular reports on the Food and Environment Reporting Network.  GAO is essentially calling on the two agencies to get busy on protecting workers at those plants.

II.  Improve Cybersecurity.  See Cybersecurity: Agencies Need to Fully Establish Risk Management Programs and Address Challenges. GAO-19-384. Washington, D.C.: July 25, 2019.

Recommendations:  The USDA should (1) develop a cybersecurity risk management strategy that includes the key elements identified in this report; and (2) establish and document a process for coordination between cybersecurity risk management and enterprise risk management functions.

Comment:  The GAO is asking USDA to work with other agencies to improve cybersecurity at meat-processing plants.  Why?  Because the meat industry’s weak cybersecurity—a long-standing problem—was recently exposed when hackers did a ransomware attack on JBS meat plants that cost the company $11 million to resolve.

Jun 2 2021

The latest complaints about the FDA’s non-action on GRAS ingredients

NutraIngredients.com had an intriguing (to me, at least) article about the latest complaints about FDA’s lack of action on GRAS ingredients—those Generally Recognized As Safe.

A recent paper claims FDA is in the dark as to how many new ingredients have come onto the market via the GRAS process. Only limited progress has been made in the decade since a Congressional report first raised the issue and directed the Agency to make changes, the authors found.”

The article referred to a this paper, Ten years post-GAO assessment, FDA remains uninformed of potentially harmful GRAS substances in foods.

The starting point for this paper is a study done by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) ten years ago: FDA Should Strengthen Its Oversight of Food Ingredients Determined to be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS)

The new paper argues that ten years later, the FDA has done little to address the GAO’s concerns.

Since 2010, FDA has addressed only a few of the criticisms regarding its process for establishing a food substance as GRAS. …most critically, FDA has chosen to remain uninformed about food substances self-determined as GRAS by manufacturers…FDA cannot fulfill its statutory obligation for ensuring the chemical safety of the U.S. food supply if it does not know which substances, in which quantities, have been added to foods.

This took me right back to a blog post I did in 2016: The FDA’s unfortunate ruling on GRAS regulations.

The FDA has announced its Final Rule on Substances Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).

The FDA explains: “Unlike food additives, GRAS substances are not subject to FDA pre-market approval; however, they must meet the same safety standards as approved food additives…The GRAS criteria require that the safe use of ingredients in human and animal food be widely recognized by the appropriate qualified experts.”

Uh oh.  “Appropriate qualified experts?”  Like those selected by the companies themselves?  The FDA has failed the public on this one.

In my 2016 post, I explained the complicated backstory of the FDA’s non-action on GRAS ingredients.

The FDA’s final GRAS rule is the result of a settlement agreement following a 2014 lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety. The basic issue: GRAS substances are not subject to FDA premarket approvals required for food additives.  Manufacturers are allowed to decide for themselves whether their additives are GRAS without informing the FDA. The new rules confirm this self-managed GRAS notification procedure.

I wrote about this issue in an editorial for JAMA Internal Medicine in 2013 when I commented on a study by Tom Neltner and his colleagues on the blatant conflicts of interest in FDA approval of GRAS substances…My editorial reviewed the lengthy history of FDA’s dithering about the GRAS process.  None of this would matter if all food additives were safe.  But some are not…The FDA’s decision is a loss for public health.

As I said then, this constitutes yet another reason not to eat ultra-processed food products with long lists of additive ingredients.

Tom Neltner, the director of chemicals policy for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), suggests 10 ways new FDA head should protect people from toxic chemicals in food.  He lists first:

  1. Stop letting industry decide for themselves, in secret, whether chemicals are safe and can be added to food. EDF, represented by Earthjustice, and the Center for Food Safety, have sued the agency to close the dangerous “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) loophole.
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