The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued another report highlighting problems with the federal food safety system, this time focusing on the gaps in food import regulation.
The report, which the GAO released at the Global Food Safety Policy Forum on Capitol Hill last Wednesday, emphasizes the need for agencies to “address gaps in enforcement and collaboration to enhance the safety of imported food.”
“A high and growing portion of the American food supply is imported, so it is essential that those foods meet U.S. safety standards,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal, who also presented at the forum. “Border inspection provides an important–and sometimes the only–food safety checkpoint.”
The GAO found ineffective collaboration between Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in their efforts to oversee imported food.
GAO cited several examples of enforcement gaps in its 78-page report. To start, CBP’s computer system does not notify FDA or FSIS when imported food shipments arrive in U.S. ports, which does not give the two public health agencies forewarning to meet and inspect shipments.
In addition to lack of coordination on food shipments, the GAO found that CBP and FDA fail to provide unique identification numbers to firms–in fact, according to Lisa Shames, the author of the report, they found one firm that had 75 identification numbers in the system.
Lack of unique identification makes it easier for shipments to slip through the cracks, “As a result, these manufacturers, and their shipments, may evade FDA review, which increases the possibility that high risk foods may enter the U.S. market,” said the report.
The FDA’s limited authority to ensure importer compliance was also listed as a key concern. According to the GAO, current procedures are not sufficient to deter the importation of goods that the FDA has not yet cleared for entry.
The report also found problems with the FDA’s information technology strategy and its lack of evaluation processes for current computer systems. GAO also noted that state officials would like more collaboration with FDA–currently, FDA does not fully share certain details, like retail distribution lists, with states during recalls.
With approximately 15 government agencies overseeing some 30 food laws in a federal food oversight system that the GAO has listed as “high-risk” since 2007 the report did not come as a surprise, but it offers another report to back up the push for FDA food safety reform legislation, which is currently hung up in the Senate.
The FDA food safety reform bill that passed the House in July–similar to the one being considered by the Senate–addresses some of the problems highlighted in the GAO import food safety report. The bill would require closer collaboration between CBP and FDA, mandate the use of unique identification numbers, and give the FDA the authority to impose civil fines.