Food Safety: Fundamental Changes Needed to Improve the Nation's Food Safety System

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-10-08.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Committee on Agriculture,
                          Nutrition, and Forestry,
                          U.S. Senate

For Release on Delivery
Expected at
9:00 a.m. EDT
                          FOOD SAFETY
October 8, 1997

                          Fundamental Changes
                          Needed to Improve the
                          Nation’s Food Safety
                          Statement for the Record by
                          Robert A. Robinson, Director,
                          Food and Agriculture Issues,
                          Resources, Community, and Economic
                          Development Division

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute this statement to your hearing
on the federal food safety system and the Department of Agriculture’s
(USDA) associated regulatory authority. As the Committee considers
options relative to USDA’s authority to recall contaminated food, we would
like to draw your attention to the fundamental weaknesses that, in our
view, need correcting in order to achieve a fully effective food safety
system: namely, regulatory fragmentation and inconsistency. We believe
the existing 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
fundamental changes that are needed will require legislative action.

Recent outbreaks of foodborne illness have once again raised questions
about the safety of the U.S. food supply. In August of this year, a number
of illnesses caused by hamburger contaminated with E.coli 0157:H7
resulted in the recall of 25 million pounds of ground beef patties and the
closing of a major meat processing plant. In 1996, and again in 1997,
outbreaks of foodborne illness were traced to raspberries imported from
Guatemala that were contaminated with cyclospora, a parasite. Moreover,
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, simply well-publicized
examples of a much more widespread and ongoing problem. In May 1996,
we reported that between 6.5 million and 81 million cases of foodborne
illness and as many as 9,100 related deaths occur each year.

In this context, we want to bring to your attention the findings and
recommendations expressed in a number of GAO reports on the food safety
issue. Our work has pointed time and again to the need to address this
issue at a 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 solution. As summarized below and discussed more fully in the
reports listed in the Related GAO Products section, our work demonstrates
that more basic actions are needed.

The existing federal system to ensure a safe food supply is fragmented,
characterized by a 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

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activities. This structure necessitates extensive coordination to minimize
duplication of effort, prevent gaps in regulatory coverage, and avoid
conflicting actions. However, as might be expected, coordination has
sometimes broken down, allowing unsanitary and other unsafe conditions
to persist in some food processing plants. (GAO/RCED-91-19A, GAO/RCED-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 unified, comprehensive assessment of the risk that
specific food products pose to public health, but rather 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-94-110.)

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 staffs,
lack the flexibility 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. (GAO/RCED-92-152, GAO/RCED-94-192, and

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 18- to 42-month period, depending on the plant’s size. The new
regulations also require that meat and poultry slaughterhouses conduct
microbial tests for E.coli (a general indicator of sanitary conditions) but

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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.
No system will be foolproof but a scientific, risk-based approach would
allow for more effective use of resources and ensure a safer food supply.

While our statement today is based on previous work, GAO is continuing to
analyze issues affecting the food safety system. In particular, we currently
are conducting a study of imported food safety for the Senate Committee
on Governmental Affairs, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
Likewise, we would be happy to work with the Senate Agriculture
Committee as it continues its efforts to maximize the effectiveness of the
nation’s food safety system in protecting the public’s health.

Again, thank you for the opportunity to submit this statement for the

Page 3                                                       GAO/T-RCED-98-24
Related GAO Products

              Food Safety: Information on Foodborne Illnesses (GAO/RCED-96-96, May 8,

              Food Safety and Quality: Who Does What in the Federal Government
              (GAO/RCED-91-19A, Dec. 21, 1990).

              Food Safety and Quality: Who Does What in the Federal Government
              (GAO/RCED-91-19B, Dec. 21, 1990).

              Food Safety and Quality: Uniform, Risk-Based Inspection System Needed
              to Ensure Safe Food Supply (GAO/RCED-92-152, June 26, 1992).

              Food Safety: Risk-Based Inspections and Microbial Monitoring Needed for
              Meat and Poultry (GAO/RCED-94-110, May 19, 1994).

              Food Safety: Changes Needed to Minimize Unsafe Chemicals in Food
              (GAO/RCED-94-192, Sept. 26, 1994).

              Food Safety: A Unified, Risk-Based Food Safety System Needed
              (GAO/T-RCED-94-223, May 25, 1994).

(150648)      Page 4                                                    GAO/T-RCED-98-24
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