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GAO on Foreign Food Safety, System Consolidation

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued an interesting food safety report last year that, like many GAO reports, went largely unnoticed.  In an effort to inform the ongoing US debate over food safety reform, the GAO looked into how Canada, the EU, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom ensure import safety and respond to foodborne illness outbreaks and to what extent these countries were able to reorganize and consolidate their food safety systems.

The GAO has been calling for an improved, modernized food safety system for years.  Globalization, increased imports, and increasingly complex industrialized food processing have put great strain on a historically underfunded and highly fragmented food regulatory system, factors which have caused the GAO to flag federal oversight of food safety as a “high risk” area of concern.

According to the GAO, this report is especially critical in the face of growing food safety challenges–imported food is making up a larger share of our food supply , consumers are eating more raw food (or food that requires “minimal processing,”) and the population is growing older and becoming more susceptible to foodborne illness.

The report, titled “Selected Countries’ Systems Can Offer Insights into Ensuring Import Safety and Responding to Foodborne Illness,” highlights some common elements of the selected food safety systems:

  1. Food safety systems are based on farm-to-table oversight.
  2. Producers in most of the selected countries are responsible for food safety.
  3. Some countries separate risk assessment from risk management.
  4. Inspections of imports are based on risk, and in the EU and Japan, importers bear some costs.
  5. Selected countries take steps to ensure certain food imports meet equivalent safety standards.

In addition to these observations, the GAO found that several of the highlighted countries “reported that three elements of their food safety systems are critical to helping them respond to outbreaks of foodborne illness,” (1) traceback procedures, (2) cooperative arrangements between government veterinarians and public health officials, and (3) mandatory recall authority.

Even though the effort to consolidate federal food safety responsibilities into one agency (which all of the countries in this study have done) has lost steam for this legislative session, many of the best practices highlighted by GAO are key elements of the food safety legislation currently making its way through Congress.

With the federal food safety system in crisis, increased authority, mandate, and funding have been welcomed by most stakeholders, in place of more systemic reform–for now.

As former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler told the New York Times, “It may be right to create a separate, new food agency with a single mission. But before we take that step there’s much that can be done to improve the current system.”

Leading food safety Attorney Bill Marler agrees, “For now, at least, we need to focus on the immediate crisis. Let’s save the reorganization until we make some progress on changes that are possible in the existing system.”

Perhaps focusing on less systemic reforms is prudent–beyond simply being more politically viable–as the final finding of the GAO report is that the selected countries have not “comprehensively evaluated the effectiveness” of their reorganized systems. The report does note, however, that “proxy measures” like public opinion surveys and partial audits have indicated some improvements.  The GAO also noted that in its investigation there was anecdotal evidence of the success of reorganization.

“For example, one industry stakeholder in Canada said that consolidation greatly sped up the government’s decision-making process and provided increased transparency, clarity, and accountability,” said the report, which cited several examples of similar anecdotes.

“Industry stakeholders told us that another benefit of reorganization was having a single point of contact. In the UK, for example, according to the representative of an industry group, the group provides its views to the Food Standards Agency though one-on-one or community meetings, and has seen changes as a result of these contacts.”

Aside from these proxy indicators, however, the GAO has offered no definitive conclusion as to whether consolidation offered a substantial, measurable improvement in the selected food safety systems.

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