United States General Accounting Office Washington, D.C. 20548 Resources, Commnnitg and Economic Development Division B-277952 September 9, 1997 Congressional Committees Subject: Food Safetv: Fundamental Changes Needed to ImDrove Food Safetv Recent outbreaks of foodborne illness have once again raised questions about the safety of the U.S. food supply. Last month, a number of illnesses caused by hamburger contaminated with E.coZi 0157:H7 resulted in the subsequent recall of 25 million pounds of ground beef patties and the closing of a major meat processing facility. In 1996, and again in 1997, outbreaks of foodborne illness were traced to raspberries imported Tom Guatemala that were contaminated with cyclosporu, a parasite. More recently, in April of this year, a hepatitis A outbreak was traced to contaminated strawberries that were served as part of the federal school lunch program. The recent outbreaks are not a new phenomenon but only well-publicized examples &f a much more widespread and ongoing problem. In May 1996, we reported that . between 6.5 million and 81 million cases of foodbome illness and as many as 9,100 related deaths occur each year. (GAO/RCED-9696). To address the public’s concern over the safety of the food supply, the Con@ess will undoubtedly be considering a number of actions. In this context, we want. to bring to your attention the findings and recommendations expressed in a number of GAO reports on the food safe@ issue. Our work has pointed time and again to the need to address this issue at a very fundamental level. The natural inclination to react to each event with a patch here and a band-aid there has not proven to be an effective long-term solutions As discussed in summary form below and more fully in the reports listed in enclosure I, our work suggests that more basic actions need to be taken. In particular, we have recommended that the highly fragmented federal food safety structure needs to be replaced with a uniform, risk-based inspection system under a single food safety agency. While some administrative actions can be taken to improve the system, the kinds of fundamental changes that we believe are needed will require legislative action. GAO/XED-97-249B Improving Food Safety B-277952 The existing federal system to ensure a safe food supply is fragmented, characterized by a complex maze of often inconsistent legal and regulatory requirements implemented by 12 different federal agencies. Of the 12 agencies, 6 have major roles in carrying out food safety and quality activities. This structure necessitates extensive coordination efforts to minimize wasteful duplication of effort, prevent gaps in regulatory coverage, and avoid conflicting actions. However, as might be expected, our work has shown that the responsible agencies have not always been successful. Unsanitary and other unsafe conditions persist in some food processing plants, in part, because coordination efforts have broken down. (GAOIRCED-91-19A, GAOLRCED-91-19B,and GAO/RCED-92-152). Our work has also shown that inconsistencies and illogical differences between the agencies’ approaches and enforcement authorities undercut the system’s effectiveness. How frequently a food processing plant is inspected and what actions are taken to enforce food safety standards are determined not by a uniEed, comprehensive assessment of the risk that specific food products pose to public health but by the legislation that governs the responsible agency. For example, under current federal law, federal inspectors must examine each meat and poultry carcass slaughtered-about 7 billion annually-and visit each of the approximately 5,900 meat and poultry processing plants at least once during each operating shift. For most other foods, however, the frequency of inspections is not mandated; thus, the inspection rate for foods other than meat and poultry has slipped from an average of once every 3 to 5 years in 1992 to once every 8 years in 1994, to once every 10 years, according to current estimates. (GAO/RCED-94110). Past efforts to correct deficiencies in the federal food safety inspection system have fallen short, in part, because they did not address’the fundamental problems in the system. Agencies continue to operate under different regulatory approaches, have widely disparate budgets and sta%, lack the flexibiliw needed to respond to changing consumption patterns and emerging food safety issues, and are hampered by laws designed to address the food safety concerns that existed at the turn of the century, not those that our nation faces today. As we have previously reported, a new structure for food safety inspection and enforcement, based on uniform enforcement authorities and an assessment of the risk that food products pose, is needed. (GAORCED-92-152, GAOAXED-94192, and GAO/T-RCED-94223). - Federal regulations issued in July 1996 require meat and poultry plants to use a scientific system called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) to ensure the safety of their products. The system will be phased in over an 2 GAO/RCED-97-24% Improving Food Safe- B-277952 l& to 42-month period, depending on the plant’s size. The new regulations also require that meat and poultry slaughter plants conduct microbial tests for Ecoli (a general indicator of sanitary conditions) but do not require meat and poultry processing plants to conduct similar testing. Requiring HACCP and microbial testing is without question important in moving towards a more scientific approach, but it does not address the fundamental problem of multiple jurisdictions nor the inefficiencies caused by mandating the frequency of inspections for some products and requiring little or no inspection or testing of other products. While no system will be foolproof, a targeted, risk-based approach would allow for the more effective use of resources and ensure a safer food supply. If you or your staE ha--e any questions or if you would like a briefing on our food safety work, please call me at (202) 512-5138. Major contributors to this report are Keith W. Oleson and John M. Nicholson, Jr. Robert k Robinson Director, Food and Agriculture Issues Enclosure - 1 3 GAO/WED-?7-249B Improving Food Safety B-277952 List of Committtees The Honorable Richard G. Lugar Chairman The Honorable Tom Harkin Ranking Minority Member Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry United States Senate The Honorable Olympia J. Snowe Chair The Honorable John F. Kerry Ranking Minority Member Subcommittee on Oceans and Fisheries Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation United States Senate The Honorable Fred Thompson Chairman The Honorable John Glenn Ranking Minority Member Committee on Governmental Affairs .United States Senate The Honorable Susan M. Collins Chair The Honorable John Glenn Ranking Minority Member Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Committee on Governmental Affairs United States Senate The Honorable James M. Jeffords Chairman The Honorable Edward M. Kennedy Ranking Minority Member Committee on Labor and Human Resources United States Senate 4 GAO/WED-9%249R Improving Food Safetp B-277952 The Honorable Robert (Bob) F. Smith Chairman The Honorable Charles W. Stenholm Ranking Minority Member Committee on Agriculture House of Representatives The Honorable Richard W. Pombo Chairman The Honorable Collin C. Peterson Ranking Mmoriw Member Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Committee on Agriculture House of Representatives The Honorable Bob Goodlatte Chairman The Honorable Eva M. Clayton Ranking Minority Member Subcommittee on Department Operations, Nutrition, and Foreign Agriculture Committee on Agriculture .House of Representatives The Honorable Tom Bliley Chairman The Honorable John D. Dingell Ranking Minority Member Commitke on Commerce House of Representatives The Honorable Dan Burton Chairman The Honorable Henry A Waxman Ranking Minority Member Committee on Government Reform and Oversight House of Representatives 5 GAO/RCED-97-249R Improving Food Safety B-277952 The Honorable Christopher Shays Chairman The Honorable Edolphus Towns Ranking Minority Member Subcommittee on Human Resources Committee on Government Reform and Oversight House of Representatives 6 GAOIRCED-97-249lZ Improving Food Safety ENCLOSURE I ENCLOSURE I LIST OF GAO’S KEY FOOD SAFETY REPORTS Food Safetvz Information on Foodbome Illnesses (GAO/RCED-9696, May 8,1996) Food Safetv and G)ualitx Who Does What in the Federal Government (GAO/RCED-91-19A, Dec. 21, 1990). Food Safetv and G)ualitv: Who Does What in the Federal Government (GAO/RCED-91-lQB, Dec. 21, 1990). Food Safetv and ChmMv. Uniform. Risk-based Inspection Svstem Needed to Ensure Safe Food Su~~lv (GAO/RC&D-92-152, June 26, 1992). Food Safetv: Risk-Based Insoections and Microbial Monitoring Needed for Meat and Poultrv (GAO/RCED-94-110, May 19, 1994). Food Safetv: Changes Needed to Minimize Unsafe Chemicals in Food (GAO/RCED-94192, Sep. 26, 1994). Food Safetv: A Utied. Risk-Based Food Safetx Svstem Needed (GAO/T-RCED-94223; May 25, 1994. (150 GAO/RCED-97-249R Improving Food Safety Ordering Information The first copy of each GAO report and testimony is free. Additional copies are $2 each. Orders should be sent to the following address, accompanied by a check or money order made out to the Superintendent of Documents, when necessary. VISA and Mastercard credit cards are accepted, also. Orders for 100 or more copies to be mailed to a single address are discounted 25 percent. Orders by mail: U.S. General Accounting Office P.O. Box 37050 Washington, DC 20013 or visit: Room 1100 700 4th St. NW (corner of 4th and G Sts. 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Food Safety: Fundamental Changes Needed to Improve Food Safety
Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-09-09.
Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)