In a sweeping report on how to carve as much as $200 billion out of the federal government, the General Accountability Office (GAO) says there should be just one federal food safety agency, even if consolidating the now fragmented system does not save much, if any, money.

THE GAO, in its first annual report to Congress to identify federal programs, agencies, offices and initiatives that have duplicative goals or activities, led off with the inefficiency of supporting 15 federal food safety agencies.

Sponsor of the legislation that called for the new report, released Tuesday, was Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, critic of the recently enacted FDA Food Safety Modernization Act who emerged as the Senate’s biggest deficit hawk.

“Fragmented food safety system has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient uses of resources,” GAO reported.  “The Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Food and Drug Administration are the primary food safety agencies, but 15 agencies are involved in some way.”

GAO said it takes 15 federal agencies to collectively administer at least 30 food-related laws, with budget obligations for USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and FDA totaling over $1.6 billion in fiscal year 2009.

“USDA is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry, processed egg products, and catfish and FDA is responsible for virtually all other food, including seafood,” the GAO report said.

“Three major trends also create food safety challenges: (1) a substantial and increasing portion of the U.S. food supply is imported, (2) consumers are eating more raw and minimally processed foods, and (3) segments of the population that are particularly susceptible to food-borne illnesses, such as older adults and immune-compromised individuals, are growing.”

GAO said it has reported on the fragmented nature of the federal food safety oversight system for more than a decade.  It pointed to last summer’s recall of a half billion eggs for Salmonella contamination as an example of how federal agencies are stepping all over one another.

“FDA is generally responsible for ensuring that shell eggs, including eggs at farms such as those where the outbreak occurred, are safe, wholesome, and properly labeled and FSIS is responsible for the safety of eggs processed into egg products. In addition, while USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service sets quality and grade standards for the eggs, such as Grade A, it does not test the eggs for microbes such as Salmonella. Further, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service helps ensure the health of the young chicks that are supplied to egg farms, but FDA oversees the safety of the feed they eat,” it reported.

“Oversight is also fragmented in other areas of the food safety system. For example, the 2008 Farm Bill assigned USDA responsibility for catfish, thus splitting seafood oversight between USDA and FDA. In September 2009, GAO also identified gaps in food safety agencies’ enforcement and collaboration on imported food. Specifically, the import screening system used by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) does not notify FDA’s or FSIS’s systems when imported food shipments arrive at U.S. ports. 

“Without access to time-of-arrival information, FDA and FSIS may not know when shipments that require examinations arrive at the port, which could increase the risk that unsafe food could enter U.S. commerce. GAO recommended that the CBP Commissioner ensure that CBP’s new screening system communicates time-of-arrival information to FDA’s and FSIS’s screening systems and GAO continues to monitor their actions.”

The GAO report says that while the President’s Food Safety Working Group has made some progress at collaborating in certain areas that cross regulatory jurisdiction, its future is uncertain. The former President’s Council on Food Safety was disbanded in 2001.

As a next step, GAO is calling for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to lead “a government wide performance plan for food safety that includes results-oriented goals and performance measures and a discussion of strategies and resources.”

“Without a government wide performance plan for food safety, decision makers do not have a comprehensive picture of the federal government’s performance on this crosscutting issue,” GAO said.

In addition, GAO suggests Congress ask the National Academy of Science to study organizational structures the U.S. government might use for its food safety programs. It wants the following considered:

— a single food safety agency, either housed within an existing agency or established as an independent entity, that assumes responsibility for all aspects of food safety at the federal level;

— a single food safety inspection agency that assumes responsibility for food safety inspection activities, but not other activities, under an existing department, such as USDA or FDA;

— a data collection and risk analysis center for food safety that consolidates data collected from a variety of sources and analyzes it at the national level to support risk-based decision making; and

— a coordination mechanism that provides centralized, executive leadership for the existing organizational structure, led by a central chair who would be appointed by the president and have control over resources.

Food safety takes up just four pages in the 345-page report, which was signed by the Comptroller General of the United States, Gene L. Dodaro.  And it suggests no big savings from consolidation.

“Although reducing fragmentation in federal food safety oversight is not expected to result in significant cost savings, new costs may be avoided by preventing further fragmentation, as illustrated by the approximately $30 million for fiscal years 2011 and 2012 that USDA officials had said they would have to spend developing and implementing the agency’s new congressionally mandated catfish inspection program,” GAO says.

Following publication of the GAO report Tuesday, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, a longtime advocate of a the need to consolidate food safety functions into a single, independent agency, released a statement vowing to reintroduce such a bill.  A single agency, she said, would be “a critical stop toward preventing food-borne illnesses and protecting public health.”