The federal government’s fragmented food safety program remains on the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s High Risk List. Federal oversight of food safety was first added to GAO’s High Risk List in 2007.

The list is updated every two years, and GAO has made recommendations to reduce fragmentation in federal food safety oversight.

But, the complex system of 30 federal laws administered by 15 federal agencies remains largely unchanged. That leaves federal food safety on the GAO High Risk List along with such areas of concern as the security clearance system, cybersecurity, and VA health services.

Department of Defense inventory management and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather forecasting enjoyed progress in getting off GAO’s list.

Congress uses the High Risk List to help set oversight agendas, with the GAO’s findings used in both agency-specific and government-wide reforms. The first list was published in 1990 and included 14 areas. Since then, 48 additions have been made to the list, and 26 removals. Two areas were consolidated into one. The GAO reported that progress on the list has resulted in $350 billion in financial benefits to the federal government.

In its latest publication, the GAO calls upon the federal food safety system to address three specific areas:

  • It calls for the Executive Office of the President (EOP) “in consultation with relevant federal agencies and other stakeholders” to develop a national strategy for food safety that establishes sustained leadership, identifies resource requirements, and describes how progress will be monitored. The GAO first made that recommendation in January 2017, but the president’s office has not responded to it.
  • It says USDA should more fully implement the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) Modernization Act of 2010 requirements by providing in its strategic and performance planning documents additional details on interagency food safety collaborations. USDA said it agreed with this GAO recommendation in December 2014.
  • And, GAO says Congress should consider directing the federal Executive Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to develop a governmentwide performance plan for food safety that includes results-oriented goals, performance measures, and a discussion of strategies and resources. Congress should also consider formalizing the Food Safety Working Group through statute to help ensure sustained leadership across food safety agencies over time.

The GAO, which in the past has called for consolidation of all federal food agencies into one, also suggests Congress at least look “alternative” organizational structures.

Among other shortcomings of the current federal food safety system, the GAO says the agencies are operating without a government-wide performance plan. Nor is there monitoring of the effectiveness of food safety programs.

The GAO High Risk List does recognize the January 2018 signed agreement between USDA and FDA, which formalizes ongoing coordination and collaboration in produce safety, biotechnology, and other areas as “positive.”

The GAO is scheduled to publish its next High Risk List in 2021.

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