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GAO Highlights Deficiencies in Food Safety – Time for a New Agency

  

Mar 17, 2017

    

A recent Government Accountability Office report reviewed the current status of food safety, demonstrating major deficiencies.  Currently the U.S. food supply is subject to the oversight of 15 agencies with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSI) responsible for the bulk of items consumed.

  

In 2015 President Obama proposed a new food safety agency paralleling the established entities in the EU and specifically the UK.  To some extent, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) enacted in 2011address food safety by shifting emphasis to prevention and placing the onus on the agricultural community and food processors to apply preventive policies based on HACCP.  The concept of a Food Safety Agency sent tremors of concern through the Federal bureaucracy which closed ranks and signed memoranda of agreement to preserve turf.

Although the U.S. is considered to have the safest food in the World, incidence rates of salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis suggest that inspection is not the solution to the problem.  Of greater concern is the fact that the FDA responsible for safety involving 80 percent of the food supply is just not doing its job.  We are vulnerable to pathogens and adulterants given the reality that slightly over 20 percent of all food consumed is imported and that FDA conducts organoleptic inspection on approximately one percent of imports.  In terms of the FSMA, the FDA was required to inspect at least 600 foreign food plants in 2012 and for each of five years  thereafter.  The Agency has failed abysmally in its responsibility not only to food but also the inspection and oversight of foreign plants manufacturing drugs.

It appears that the USDA approach of tightening standards specifically for Salmonella and Campylobacter does not address the basic need to develop appropriate modalities to reduce infection throughout the chain of production.  Admittedly, the industries involved in their individual and collective efforts have lowered rates of contamination in finished products but we have attained a plateau following the Law of Diminishing Returns. 

This is especially the case with Campylobacter infection since there is no practical or reliable pre-harvest control measure or procedure to limit this pathogen. Modalities to limit Salmonella in plants appear to have beneficial effects but we cannot assume absolute safety, necessitating improved storage, handling and meal preparation to protect consumers.

EGG-CITE and CHICK-CITE have frequently advocated a unified food safety agency staffed by competent scientific administrative and regulatory personnel with a focus on food.  This will leave the FDA with the responsibility for drugs which it appears hard pressed to administer. The USDA will concentrate on activities other than food safety including research, SNAP, insurance agricultural statistics, trade and support.

It is maintained by Washington insiders that creating a new food service agency at sub-cabinet level would be too disruptive.  When faced with a crisis in 2001 the Department of Homeland Security was established.  Given the current environment in Washington, a new agency may bring innovation and technology to the issue of food safety and to enhance protection of our food supply.  The least we can do is to approach the issue with an open mind and consider whether a new approach may be more cost effective.