While FDA, FSIS, and the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) have taken some steps to address fragmentation and improve interagency food safety coordination, more needs to be done, GAO said. For example, OMB has not addressed an earlier recommendation to develop a government-wide plan for the federal food safety oversight system.
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To provide the framework for creating such a government-wide plan, in June 2016 GAO convened 19 food safety and government performance experts from industry and academia for a two-day meeting to identify and recommend steps to improve the overall system. These recommendations include the following.
- Evaluate and allocate federal government resources on the basis of reducing the risk of foodborne illnesses. This strategy should integrate federal, tribal, state, and local resources to coordinate and take advantage of what’s already being done at other levels of government and by industry.
- Manage risks consistently across commodities. Under FSMA, the frequency and selection of FDA inspections are largely risk-based, but federal laws governing FSIS require inspectors to be present at all times during animal slaughter and part of the time during processing. Changing the laws to align USDA’s inspection model with FDA’s “could benefit industry by reducing the resources companies expend for regulatory compliance rather than for managing risk,” the experts said.
- Consider as a long-term goal the consolidation of all food safety functions into a single new government agency. But because this is not feasible in the near-term, the experts suggested consolidating food safety functions within their respective agencies. For example, food safety within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) could be consolidated within FDA, or alternatively, in a new agency separate from FDA but still within HHS.
- Align and coordinate federal support from the various federal agencies to the states; improve the food safety information infrastructure, including how data are collected and shared; improve risk communication with the public; and invest in training and professional development for food safety officials.
Based on the panel’s suggestions, GAO recommended that the Executive Office of the President, in consultation with other agencies and stakeholders, develops a defined national strategy, “establishes high-level sustained leadership, identifies resource requirements, monitors progress, and identifies short- and long-term actions to improve the food safety oversight system.”
Recommendations from Academia
In February 2017, the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at the Vermont Law School and the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic jointly released a 114-page “Blueprint for a National Food Strategy.” Similar to the GAO’s and other government studies, the report criticizes the “piecemeal policy and regulatory framework pertaining to food and agriculture,” noting that the U.S. food system “often works at cross-purposes, providing abundance while creating inefficiencies, and imposing unnecessary burdens on our economy, environment, and overall health.”
“Many federal policies, laws, and regulations guide and structure our food system,” states the report, which received funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. “However these laws are fragmented and sometimes inconsistent, hindering food system improvements.” Like the GAO report, the Vermont/Harvard study is process-oriented, focusing on how rather than on what to do.
Unlike the GAO and other government reports, the academic study adopts a noticeably egalitarian quality by advocating for substantial public engagement and transparency. The following four principles would guide the creation of a national food strategy.
- Identify a lead office or agency within the federal government and give it sufficient resources and authority to compel engagement and action. An interagency working group would coordinate activities, and all efforts would include state, local, and tribal governments as key partners.
- Create an advisory council made up of members of the public and key stakeholders from outside the federal government. Their needs and interests must be obtained and incorporated into the strategy.
- Maintain transparency by providing information to the public on how laws and policies shape the food system; creating a written document that articulates goals and how they will be implemented and measured; and issuing regular progress reports.
- Ensure the strategy is durable by publishing periodic updates that reflect changing social, economic, scientific, and technological factors.
“Using these mechanisms to coordinate laws, policies, information, and perspectives related to the food system can serve to lay the framework for an effective and urgently needed comprehensive national food strategy that promotes the needs and interests of all Americans,” the report concludes.
Government Response to GAO
As is typical with these reports, GAO invited HHS, USDA, and other agencies to review and comment on its recommendations. HHS declined to comment, and USDA disagreed with many of the proposals, including the overall need for a national strategy. But should any major changes to the food safety system actually be considered, USDA called it “imperative” that they be “data-driven, well-designed, collaborative, and, ultimately, continue to enable the United States to have the safest food supply in the world.”