papers_406x250Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) have requested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) study whether creating a single food agency would increase efficiencies, reduce costs and improve safety. In January, Durbin and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced bills to establish such a single food safety agency independent of any federal department and consolidating the oversight currently split up among 15 agencies in the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, and Commerce. In his budget proposal for fiscal year 2016, President Obama proposed the consolidation of the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety components into a new agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. In addition to several bills introduced in Congress over the years, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Commission on Public Service and several GAO reports have proposed consolidation. GAO “has long reported that the system is in need of transformation and has resulted in inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources,” the senators wrote to Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro on Tuesday. “GAO has included federal oversight of food safety both on its High Risk List since 2007 and in its annual report to Congress, starting in 2011, on federal initiatives that have duplicative goals or activities.” Now the lawmakers want to know the alternative organizational options for the food safety system, the costs, benefits and implementation challenges associated with each option, and the lessons learned from other countries’ efforts to consolidate their food safety functions and systems. GAO has compared single food safety agencies in other countries before, but the new request also asks for cost-benefit analyses of domestic options. In 1999, GAO’s director of food and agriculture issues testified before the Senate that the U.S. needed a single agency to administer a unified, risk-based inspection system. His testimony also described the experiences of four other countries in consolidating their food safety systems. In response to Durbin’s request for the information in 2004, GAO updated and expanded that information so that the organization’s 2005 report compared the experiences of Canada, Denmark, Germany Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. According to GAO, the two primary reasons each country had for establishing a single agency to lead food safety management were public concern and the need to improve program effectiveness. The main challenges each country faced were deciding whether to create the agency within an existing health or agriculture department or as its own standalone agency and how to help employees adjust to the new agency. They were also faced with start-up costs and a temporary reduction in the quantity of food safety activities performed. In commenting on a draft of the 2005 report, HHS and USDA said that they were working together effectively to ensure food safety. The agencies also noted that the report didn’t contain cost-benefit analyses of the consolidations, and USDA said the report didn’t have information on causal relationships between consolidation and quantifiable public health benefits, such as changes in the incidence of foodborne illness. At the Food Safety Summit in April 2015, top officials of U.S. food safety agencies argued that collaboration was a higher priority than consolidation.