In a report issued on Monday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) called on the White House to implement a national food safety plan to address weaknesses in the current oversight regime.
The watchdog cited negative outcomes in the existing system due to excessive fragmentation, with more than 3,000 agencies involved in the majority of food safety initiatives.
“Although the US food supply is generally considered safe, foodborne illness remains a costly, common public health problem,” the report stated.
It went on to recommend that the Executive Office of the President take the lead in drafting a new national framework to strengthen current food safety efforts.
The US Department of Agriculture and the Federal Drug Administration are the primary agencies charged with oversight of what Americans eat and drink, but there are 14 other federal agencies involved activities like inspecting restaurants, monitoring the food supply, and containing outbreaks. On top of that, there are thousands of state, local, tribal, and territorial authorities involved in the system, too.
According to expert interviews conducted by GAO, such fragmentation has “negative effects” on the food safety effort, including the misallocation of resources. For example, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service received roughly the same funding as the FDA, even though only 20 percent of the US food supply is under the department’s jurisdiction. The FDA is tasked with overseeing the remaining 80 percent.
“For more than four decades, we have reported on the fragmented federal food safety oversight system,” GAO noted. In 2007, the body added federal food safety to its “High Risk List” list, indicating the regime’s increased susceptibility to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.
In the intervening years, GAO stated that the government hasn’t done enough to address over-fragmentation, prompting Monday’s call for executive action.
According to the latest figures from the Center for Disease Control, an estimated 47.8 million people in the US are afflicted by foodborne illnesses every year. More than 3,000 people end up dying.
In 2014, GAO identified “major trends” that will continue to put stress on the current food safety network. They included a “substantial” increase in imported food, “which stretches the federal government’s ability to ensure the safety of these foods.”
The oversight body also cited a growing trend of Americans eating raw and minimally processed foods that are more likely to contain pathogens.