by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: GAO(Government Accountability Office)

May 4 2022

GAO says moving USDA’s ERS to Kansas was not such a great idea

The Government Accountability Office has just issued this report:  Evidence-Based Policy Making: USDA’s Decision to Relocate Research Agencies to Kansas City Was Not Fully Consistent with an Evidence-Based Approach

You may recall that in October 2019, USDA relocated most Economic Research Service staff positions from Washington DC to Kansas City, MO.  At the time, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said the move would save taxpayers more than $300 million over ten years.

This defied credulity.  The real reason had to be that politically appointed USDA officials wanted to destroy the ERS.  Its economists produce reports that tell truths inconvenient for political expediency.

An easy way to destroy an agency is to move it half way across the country.  That way three-quarters of the professional staff would quit or retire.

I considered this move a national tragedy, and said so repeatedly.

The GAO is more polite than I am.  Here is a summary excerpt from the report’s Highlights.

USDA’s stated objectives for relocation were to improve its ability to attract and retain highly-qualified staff; place its resources closer to stakeholders and consumers; and reduce costs to taxpayers.

However, GAO found that the economic analysis did not fully align with those objectives. ..USDA omitted critical costs and economic effects from its analysis of taxpayer savings, such as costs related to potential attrition or disruption of activities for a period of time, which may have contributed to an unreliable estimate of savings from relocation.

Overall, GAO found that USDA’s development and usage of evidence had significant limitations… As a result of the weaknesses GAO found, USDA leadership may have made a relocation decision that was not the best choice to accomplish its stated objectives.

But it did achieve its unstated objective: to weaken, if not destroy, ERS.   This agency is still publishing reports, but most of them are uncontroversial estimates of food production and use.  Occasionally I see glimmers of the kinds of reports the agency used to produce.  Let’s hope more of them are on their way.

Sep 21 2021

At last, a call for leadership to prevent diet-related chronic disease

Chronic (“noncommunicable”) diseases—heart disease, cancer, and diabetes—account for half of annual deaths in the United States at enormous physical and economic cost to individuals and to society.  These conditions are related to diet; obesity is a risk factor for all three.

Despite the widespread prevalence of obesity (the CDC says 73.6% of American adults are overweight or severely overweight) and its associated chronic conditions, no concerted government effort is aimed at prevention.

This is also true on the international level.  The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals barely mention reduction of noncommunicable diseases.  You have to go to the fourth sub-goal of SDG 3, Good Health and Well-Being, to find:

By 2030, reduce by one third premature mortality from non-communicable disaeases through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and well-being.

Why is so little attention focused on diet-related conditions?  To prevent them, people have to eat more of healthier foods and less of unhealthier foods—public health measures strongly opposed by the food industry.  [For detailed evidence on this point, see Swinburn BA, et al.  The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change: The Lancet Commission reportLancet. 2019;393:791-846].

Representatives Rosa DeLauro and Tim Ryan have the same question.  They asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to look into government efforts to prevent chronic disease.

The result: Chronic Health Conditions:Federal Strategy Needed to Coordinate Diet-Related Efforts.

It’s not that the US government ignores chronic disease; on the contrary.  The GAO identified an astounding 200 federal efforts to reduce these conditions—but fragmented among an even more astounding 21 federal agencies.

Most of these are focused on research.

These programs are all over the place, and nobody is in charge.

Agency Officials Say They Lack Authority to Lead a Federal Strategy on Diet:  Despite their support for a federal strategy to coordinate diet-related efforts, no agency officials we interviewed asserted that their agencies had the authority to lead a federal strategy that would have reasonable assurance of being sustained across administrations. Officials from six agencies said they would not have the authority, and officials from the remaining 10 agencies said they did not know or were not in a position to comment. Some officials stated that they would have the authority to lead a strategy for their agency alone but not for the entire federal government.

The GAO came to the obvious conclusion.

Congress should consider identifying and directing a federal entity to lead the development and implementation of a federal strategy to coordinate diet-related efforts that aim to reduce Americans’ risk of chronic health conditions. The strategy could incorporate elements from the 2011 National Prevention Strategy and should address outcomes and accountability, resources, and leadership.

Leadership!  Here’s my list.

  • Say what a healthy diet is in plain English.
  • Tell the public to avoid or minimize ultra-processed foods.
  • Establish policies—from agriculture to public health—to promote healthful diets and discourage unhealthful diets.

This will take courage.  Hence: Leadership.

Mar 27 2019

GAO’s 40-year plea for better oversight of food safety

Food safety seems very much on the agenda this week.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released its latest biennial High Risk list of programs “vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or that need transformation.”

Of interest is this listing: Improving Federal Oversight of Food Safety. The report finds not much change from goals set two years ago; the goal for an action plan is still not met:

Without a government-wide performance plan for food safety, Congress, program managers, and other decision makers are hampered in their ability to identify agencies and programs addressing similar missions and to set priorities, allocate resources, and restructure federal efforts, as needed, to achieve long-term goals. Moreover, without a centralized collaborative mechanism—like the FSWG [Food Safety Working Group]—to address food safety, there is no forum for agencies to reach agreement on a set of broad-based food safety goals and objectives that could be articulated in a government-wide performance plan on food safety.

The GAO explains why inadequate federal oversight of food safety poses a high risk.  Safety issues, it says,

are governed by a highly complex system stemming from at least 30 federal laws that are collectively administered by 15 federal agencies. For more than four decades, we have reported on the fragmented federal food safety oversight system, which has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources. We added federal oversight of food safety to the High-Risk List in 2007. In recent years, moreover, we have made recommendations aimed at helping to reduce fragmentation in federal food safety oversight. As of November 2018, two of three recommendations related to this high-risk area had not been implemented.

In 2017, I wrote about how the GAO has been calling for decades—more than 40 years—for better coordination of food-safety oversight, and my post lists a selection of GAO reports dating back to 1970.

The GAO is still at it.

We should not give up either.

Jul 14 2017

Do memory supplements help boost memory (oh how I wish)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has a new report out calling for better federal oversight of memory supplements.

These are a growing market with sales estimated at $643 million in 2015, almost double since 2006.

FDA and FTC share oversight of memory supplement labeling and advertising, respectively, but neither approves claims in advance.  For this, thank the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 which pretty much lets supplement makers claim whatever they like for their products, as long as they word the claims carefully.

GAO found ads for memory supplements claiming that they would boost, enhance, improve, increase, or maintain a healthy memory.  They also made claims related to general brain health, cognitive function, and well-being.

Amazon sells these things. It advertises them like this:

Brain and Memory Booster – All Natural Formula- Brain supplement helps improve memory, mood, clarity and focus and protect against mental decline, depression, anxiety.

Do they work?

Alas, no, according to Consumer Reports.  But that doesn’t stop Americans from spending $91 million on them in 2015.

Really, something needs to be done about DSHEA.

Here’s the GAO report: Memory Supplements: Clarifying FDA and FTC Roles Could Strengthen Oversight and Enhance Consumer Awareness.
GAO-17-416.

Jul 1 2013

USDA issues rules for competitive school foods. Yes!

At long last the USDA released Interim Final Rules for competitive foods—the snacks and sodas sold from vending machines and carts outside of federally supported school lunches.

They were worth the wait.

The new  standards are tough and will change the food landscape in schools much for the better.  They are summarized in a handy flier.   The new rules require:

  • Snacks to be rich in whole grains, have real food as a first ingredient, and provide nutritional value.
  • Drinking water to be available to all students at no cost.
  • Other drinks to contain no more than 40 calories per 8 fl oz, or 60 calories per 12 fl oz.  This excludes all regular sodas, even Gatorade. 

USDA summarizes the changes in its Smart Snacks in School Infographic:

Competitive foods have long been a bone of contention.  They compete for kids’ food money with the school meals.  Although USDA regulates where and when they can be sold, schools routinely violate such rules.  I’ve seen for myself  how many schools allow vending machines to be open during lunch periods.

The USDA issued nutrition standards for school meals early in 2012, but it’s taken this long to issue the ones for competitive foods, no doubt because of the expected uproar from food and drink producers whose products will now be excluded.

To back up the rules, the USDA has produced a vast array of materials and documents.

One web page is devoted to a toolkit of materials for “the healthier school day.”

A separate web page links to all of the legislative and other documents, videos, issue briefs, Q and A’s, statement from First Lady Michele Obama, and other items of technical assistance to the new “smart snacks in schools” program and rules.

Also see:

But note: the rule is “interim” because the 120-day comment period is now open.  USDA can still make plenty of changes.  Schools will have a year to implement the final standards.

Watch the lobbying begin.

You think there won’t be opposition?  Think again.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just released a report recommending that USDA ease off on restricting the amount of meat and grains allowed in the school meal standards that went into effect this year.   Apparently, USDA agrees.  GAO reports are usually requested by members of Congress and this one is no exception.  Guess which party these particular requesters belong to, and who funds their election campaigns.

USDA deserves much applause and support for its courage in issuing rules for competitive foods that might actually help kids stay healthier.

May 10 2012

GAO says U.S. food safety system needs work, resources

The Government Accountability Office is complaining again about the inadequacies of the American food safety system, and with good reason.

Its 2012 Annual Report, Opportunities to Reduce Duplication, Overlap and Fragmentation, Achieve Savings, and Enhance Revenue, says that the food safety system is:

fragmented and results in inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.

In 2007, GAO added food safety to its list of high-risk areas that warrant attention by Congress and the executive branch.

More recently GAO found that this fragmentation extends to the responsibilities across multiple agencies to defend food and agricultural systems against terrorist attacks and natural disasters…Many of these activities are everyday functions or part of the broader food and agriculture defense initiative and would be difficult for the agencies to separately quantify.

This report repeats what the GAO has been saying since the early 1990s:

there is no centralized coordination to oversee the federal government’s overall progress in implementing the nation’s food and agriculture defense policy.

Because the responsibilities outlined in this policy (HSPD-9) are fragmented and cut across at least nine different agencies, centralized oversight is important to ensure that efforts are coordinated to overcome this fragmentation, efficiently use scarce funds, and promote the overall effectiveness of the federal government.

Reminder: the present food safety system is mainly divided between two agencies: USDA (meat and poultry) and FDA (everything else).

Centralized oversight of food safety?  What a concept.

Apr 27 2012

American Enterprise Institute advocates single food-safety agency!

Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows. 

The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative (to say the least) think tank, has just issued a report on reforming the farm bill to ensure a safer food system.  Its stunning conclusion:

More feasibly, in the short to medium term, changes in food safety regulation should aim at correcting inconsistencies or loopholes that exist in US food safety laws.

For example, policymakers could merge the FSIS and the FDA to allow for a better allocation of resources and exploit potential return to scales.

Standardizing states’ detection systems for food-borne illnesses and collecting better data about the incidence of food-borne illnesses would make firms more accountable and help construct better food safety policies.

Merge the food safety functions of USDA and FDA?  This, of course, is precisely what food safety advocates and the Government Accountability Office have been urging since the early 1990s. 

Now, maybe, it has a chance?

Jan 17 2012

Rumor: a single food safety agency at long last?

According to rumors passed along by Dan Flynn at Food Safety News via the Hagstrom Report (an agricultural subscription news service costing $999 a year), the Office of Management and Budget wants to merge federal agencies, among them the food safety components of FDA and USDA.

Rumors are that the Obama administration wants to do this to make “food safety independent of USDA, which primarily exists to market and promote American farm products.”

If this happens, it could be one major benefit of cost-cutting measures.  At the moment, USDA gets about three quarters of the total appropriation for food safety (for roughly one quarter of the food supply) whereas FDA gets one quarter of the appropriation for three quarters of the food supply.

This inequity is a result of the way Congress funds the FDA—through agricultural appropriations committees, not, as any sensible person might expect, through health committees (this too needs to change).

The merger also would eliminate the dysfunctional distinctions between regulations for meat and poultry (USDA) and practically all other foods (FDA).   A merged agency could deal with the unpleasant fact that animal waste is the cause of many food safety problems with fruits and vegetables.

The idea of a single food safety agency is not new.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been calling for its creation since 1990 or earlier, most recently in 2011.

In the 2011 report, GAO said, as it has for years:

Fragmented food safety system has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient uses of resources…The Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Food and Drug Administration are the primary food safety agencies, but 15 agencies are involved in some way.

These, GAO points out, administer at least 30 food-related laws.

In addition, GAO urges Congress to ask the National Academy of Science to consider several organizational structures that might work better than the current system:

  • A single food safety agency, either housed within an existing agency or established as an independent entity, that assumes responsibility for all aspects of food safety at the federal level
  • A single food safety inspection agency that assumes responsibility for food safety inspection activities, but not other activities, under an existing department, such as USDA or FDA
  •  A data collection and risk analysis center for food safety that consolidates data collected from a variety of sources and analyzes it at the national level to support risk-based decision making
  • A coordination mechanism that provides centralized, executive leadership for the existing organizational structure, led by a central chair who would be appointed by the president and have control over resources

The rumors do not say which of these options is favored.

Not everyone is as enthusiastic about a single food safety agency as I am, in part because this and other issues remain to be resolved: where the new agency would go and what its resources might be.

And, as food safety lawyer Bill Marler points out, legal matters are also at stake:

We can’t overlook the legal issues in food safety. Right now there are too few legal consequences for sickening or killing customers by selling contaminated food. We should impose stiff fines, and even prison sentences, for violators, and even stiffer penalties for repeat violators.

So, let’s make some progress in stopping food poisoning and then later pick out the new stationery.

Former USDA official Richard Raymond, writing in Food Safety News argues:

It is my sincere belief that a merger of the two food safety agencies would be an unmitigated disaster in the short term because the cultures are so very different. And unless megadollars flowed with the merger, nothing more could be accomplished than is currently done.

And there are dozens of other valid reasons to “just say no” to the Administration’s thinking.

He suggests reading the comment posted on Dan Flynn’s article from Carol Tucker Foreman, also a former USDA official and a long-time food safety advocate.

The major point of her very long comment is that moving USDA’s meat and poultry inspection responsibilities to FDA

Would likely reduce the current level of health protection provided by food safety laws and curtail the progress that has been made in reducing foodborne illness.

The FDA, saddled by lack of funds, sufficient legal authority, and food safety leadership has been criticized…for its inability to provide a decent level of food safety protection in the domestic and imported food products it regulates.

…Today the FSIS [USDA] has surpassed the FDA in some areas. The agency has adequate resources and high official status in a relatively small Cabinet agency…FDA, despite its new law, is still strapped for funds, burdened by its low position at HHS and the need to manage multiple agendas…Reorganization would not address the continuing problems of either agency.

…We’re confident that trying to move other agencies to the FDA or HHS won’t save money. In fact we are confident it would reduce the effectiveness of the meat and poultry inspection program…leading to a potential increase in foodborne illness and the related costs. That makes it bad policy and a bad bargain.

But what if the new hypothetical single food safety agency does not go to FDA?  What if it goes someplace independent of either agency?   And what if the new entity started out with the highest possible safety standards, funded adequately?

If we are dealing with rumors, we can deal with dreams too, no?

Update, January 29Food SafetyNews says all rumors are false.  This isn’t going to happen because the meat industry doesn’t want it to happen.