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GAO report advocates for single federal food safety agency

March 18, 2011 | 12:37 pm

Eggsrecall This post has been corrected. See note at bottom.

To improve the nation's access to safe food, the General Accountability Office is recommending in a new report the creation of a single federal agency to oversee it and run a unified food-safety system.

The GAO targeted the inefficiencies of keeping up a patchwork system of different federal food safety agencies up and running as part of a larger effort to identify programs, agencies, offices and initiatives that overlap. The report was submitted on Friday to Congress.

In it, the GAO said that it takes about 15 federal agencies to run at least 30 food-related laws. The budget for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Food and Drug Administration was -– wait for it -– a total of more than $1.6 billion in fiscal year 2009.

At the same time, according to the report, "three major trends also create food safety challenges. First, a substantial and increasing portion of the U.S. food supply is imported. Second, consumers are eating more raw and minimally processed foods. Third, segments of the population that are particularly susceptible to food-borne illnesses, such as older adults and immune-compromised individuals, are growing."

The GAO noted that this is far from the first time it has reported on the fragmented federal food safety oversight system. In 2007, the GAO added the issue to its high-risk list.

The report also pointed out that such gaps in the system exacerbated last summer’s recall of half a billion eggs because of Salmonella contamination.

Oversight is also a problem in other areas, according to the report.

"For example, the 2008 Farm Bill gave USDA responsibility for inspecting catfish, but left general responsibility for seafood safety with FDA, making the system more fragmented. According to USDA officials, USDA estimates it will spend no more than $5 million in fiscal year 2011 and did not request funding for fiscal year 2012 for its catfish inspection program."

-- P.J. Huffstutter

Photo: A sign last summer warns customers of the recall of certain lots of eggs due to possible Salmonella contamination. Credit: Reed Saxon / Associated Press

For the record, 1:25 p.m.: An earlier post said that a GAO report suggested that billions of dollars could be saved if a unified federal food-safety agency were created. The report states that although billions of dollars are spent on the current patchwork oversight system, a consolidated oversight agency would result in little to no cost savings.