Bringing change to food safety oversight

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Food safety seemed destined to be a priority area for the 111th Congress even as the nation grapples with a severe recession. The Government Accountability Office (G.A.O.) advised the new Congress that federal oversight of food safety remained an area of high risk and current agencies and procedures must be "revamped" through legislation to address public concerns. The need for reforming how the government approaches food safety issues also was the subject of a Jan. 22 letter to congressional leaders from industry associations stung by recent outbreaks of food-borne illness.

The G.A.O. presents each new Congress a list of high-risk areas requiring legislators’ attention and action. Federal oversight of food safety was added to the list when the G.A.O.’s "high-risk series" was presented to the 110th Congress in 2007, and food safety remained on the list presented to the current Congress as it convened in January.

The G.A.O. said it added oversight of food safety to the "high-risk series" in 2007 because 15 agencies collectively administer at least 30 food-related laws. Fragmentation of oversight responsibility and inadequate resources worked against providing adequate protection to the nation’s food supply. It noted since food safety was added to its high-risk areas list, there was the largest food-borne outbreak in the last 10 years, which was linked to Salmonella in fresh produce.

The two principal federal agencies with oversight responsibility for food safety are the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which inspects meat and poultry products, and the Food and Drug Administration, which has oversight of all other foods, including seafood. The G.A.O. said the division of responsibilities between the F.S.I.S. and the F.D.A. often is blurred and fragmentation seemed to be getting worse instead of better. The agency pointed to the 2008 farm bill assigning F.S.I.S. oversight responsibility for catfish, "thus splitting up seafood oversight."

The G.A.O. noted more than 70% of processed foods contain ingredients from bioengineered crops.

"However, U.S.D.A., F.D.A. and the Environmental Protection Agency do not have a coordinated strategy for monitoring and evaluating the use of marketed genetically engineered crops to determine whether they are causing food safety concerns, such as the unintentional introduction of pharmaceutical or industrial compounds into the food supply," the G.A.O. said.

The G.A.O. also said there was a great disparity in resources provided to the F.S.I.S. and the F.D.A. to carry out their respective responsibilities. The F.D.A. is responsible for overseeing the safety of about 80% of the food supply but accounts for only 24% of expenditures. The G.A.O. noted while the F.S.I.S. must inspect all meat and poultry destined for consumers,

The G.A.O. found the F.D.A. had little assurance companies comply with food-labeling laws and regulations. Also, the agency said while the F.D.A. has considered fresh produce safety a priority for many years, "unplanned events like food-borne outbreaks have caused F.D.A. to provide limited oversight of domestic and imported fresh produce as well as delay key safety actions such as upgrading regulations and guidance."

The F.D.A.’s Food Protection Plan proposed positive first steps toward addressing public concerns, including stating the agency’s intent to request authority to order food recalls and issue preventative controls, the G.A.O. said.

The G.A.O recommended, "Congress should consider commissioning the National Academy of Sciences or a blue ribbon panel to conduct a detailed analysis of alternative food safety organizations structures and enact comprehensive, uniform and risk-based food safety legislation."

The food industry added its voice to those calling for food safety reform. In a letter dated Jan. 22 and sent to the leadership of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, associations representing the food industry said, "Our organizations urge you to quickly enact food safety reforms." The associations indicated several areas that require congressional action.

First, Congress should require every food company manufacturing food for the U.S. market to conduct an evaluation of food safety risks that identifies potential sources of contamination, identifies appropriate food safety controls and documents those controls in a food safety plan available for F.D.A. review.

Lawmakers should also build the capacity of foreign governments to regulate food safety and to require every food importer to police their foreign suppliers. In particular, Congress should require that food importers document the food safety measures and controls being implemented by their foreign suppliers and require food importers make a foreign supplier food safety plan available for F.D.A. review.

Congress should give the F.D.A. the power to establish safety standards for certain fruits and vegetables when risk and science demonstrate standards are needed. The F.D.A. should be permitted to work with states and others to tailor standards to meet local growing conditions and ensure standards are met.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, February 3, 2009, starting on Page 23. Click here to search that archive.

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