Lisa R. Shames

When buying a gallon of milk or ordering a cheeseburger and fries, most of us take food safety for granted. This confidence is not entirely misplaced, since overall the United States food supply is considered safe.

Nevertheless, foodborne illnesses continue to pose a small but real risk. In several recent high-profile cases, consumers in several states were sickened by contaminated food products as diverse as spinach and peanut butter.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 76 million Americans each year become at least mildly ill from eating contaminated food. About 325,000 of those individuals, however, become sick enough to require hospitalization, and around 5,000 of them die.

Studies by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggest that a more integrated food safety oversight system could prevent at least some of these cases. The current system is actually a patchwork of programs that evolved piecemeal, often in response to severe outbreaks of illness, industry problems, or other specific circumstances. Today, 15 federal agencies administer more than 30 major laws regulating food safety.

Problems with the current system have been evident for some time. As far back as the 1980s, GAO reports on food safety pointed out shortcomings in oversight, poor agency coordination, and inefficient use of resources. Complicated regulatory jurisdiction has also been a factor. Subtle differences in food can result in different agencies having authority over very similar food products. For example, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture inspects manufacturers of open-faced turkey sandwiches, while the Food and Drug Administration inspects manufacturers of closed-faced turkey sandwiches. The difference: one vs two slices of bread.

GAO has become so concerned about the safety of the nation’s food supply that it recently added federal oversight of food safety to its high-risk list of troubled areas across government (see "Transforming Federal Oversight of Food Safety" on pp. 26–31 of GAO’s report, "High-Risk Series, An Update," at These high-risk programs generally need urgent attention and, in some cases, fundamental transformation.

GAO decided to add food safety to its high-risk list for a number of reasons:
• The organization of the existing food safety system is fragmented. Existing law gives agencies inconsistent regulatory and enforcement authorities, and some food safety efforts are duplicative and overlapping.

• In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, concerns have grown about the vulnerability of the nation’s food supply to agro-terrorism.

• Even though 80% of American seafood is imported, inspection resources in this area are extremely limited.

• Food recalls today are strictly voluntary. With the exception of infant formula, federal agencies cannot force companies to recall tainted food products.

• Most federal spending on food safety has targeted meat, poultry, and eggs, even though these products account for only 20% of the nation’s food supply.

Over the years, federal agencies have acted on many of GAO’s recommendations to improve the food inspection system. Even so, a top-to-bottom review of the current system is long overdue. In our view, public officials need to reexamine the overall system and consider realigning programs and priorities under an integrated structure that will better protect the American consumer.

To this end, GAO has urged comprehensive legislation that would, among other things, commission a blue-ribbon panel or an independent organization like the National Academy of Sciences to analyze options for restructuring the food safety system. In addition, GAO has recommended reconvening the President’s Council on Food Safety to better coordinate food safety policies and initiatives at various agencies.

Improving the safety and integrity of the nation’s food supply will require a sustained focus over many years. Congress and the Executive Branch can communicate their expectations through regular congressional oversight and the issuance of agency strategic plans that contain clear goals and milestones.

A government-wide performance plan could also be helpful in ensuring that agency efforts are complementary and mutually enforcing. It could also help policymakers balance trade-offs and compare performance when allocating resources and restructuring programs.

By designating food safety a high-risk area, GAO has sought to bring attention to the need to transform and reinvigorate a vital but fragmented government function. Meaningful changes here can save millions of dollars, safeguard the health of millions of Americans, and boost public trust and confidence in government.

by Lisa R. Shames is Acting Director, Natural Resources and Environment, Government Accountability Office, 441 G St., N.W., Washington, DC 20548 ([email protected]).