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)

United States
General Accounting Office
Washington, D.C. 20548

Resources, Commnnitg and
Economic Development Division
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

                                          GAO/XED-97-249B Improving Food Safety

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-
 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
List of Committtees

The Honorable Richard G. Lugar
The Honorable Tom Harkin
Ranking Minority Member
Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry
United States Senate

The Honorable Olympia J. Snowe
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
 The Honorable John Glenn
 Ranking Minority Member
 Committee on Governmental Affairs
.United States Senate

The Honorable Susan M. Collins
The Honorable John Glenn
Ranking Minority Member
Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations
Committee on Governmental Affairs
United States Senate

 The Honorable James M. Jeffords
 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
The Honorable Robert (Bob) F. Smith
The Honorable Charles W. Stenholm
Ranking Minority Member
Committee on Agriculture
House of Representatives

The Honorable Richard W. Pombo
The Honorable Collin C. Peterson
Ranking Mmoriw Member
Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry
Committee on Agriculture
House of Representatives

 The Honorable Bob Goodlatte
 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
The Honorable John D. Dingell
Ranking Minority Member
Commitke on Commerce
House of Representatives

The Honorable Dan Burton
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
The Honorable Christopher Shays
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

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.


                                                   GAO/RCED-97-249R   Improving   Food Safety
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