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Food Safety - High Risk Issue

The patchwork nature of federal oversight of food safety may make it difficult to ensure that the government is effectively promoting the safety and integrity of the nation's food supply.

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Fragmented federal oversight of food safety has been a longstanding concern because it results in inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources. Consequently, GAO added federal oversight of food safety to our High Risk List in 2007, and it remains on the 2019 High Risk List.

The safety and quality of the U.S. food supply is governed by a complex system stemming from at least 30 laws administered by 15 federal agencies. But the two primary agencies are:

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry, processed egg products, and catfish
  • The Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for virtually all other food

However, these two agencies do not always coordinate with each other. For example, in a 1984 memorandum of understanding, they agreed to coordinate on drug residue testing methods—but have yet to do so. As a result, the agencies are not leveraging each other’s knowledge and resources to develop drug residue testing methods. On a positive note, FDA and USDA did sign an agreement in January 2018 to formalize ongoing coordination and collaboration efforts in the areas of produce safety and regulation of biotechnology products.

Table 1: Federal Agencies’ Food Safety Responsibilities

Department and/or agency


Responsible for

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Food Safety and Inspection Service

Ensuring the nation’s domestic and imported commercial supply of meat, poultry, catfish, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged; enforcing the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1978, as amended; and providing voluntary fee-for-service inspections for exotic animals.


Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

Preventing the introduction or dissemination of (1) plant pests and (2) livestock pests or diseases.


Agricultural Marketing Servicea

Establishing quality and condition standards for, among other things, dairy, fruit, vegetables, and livestock.


Agricultural Research Service

Providing the scientific research to help ensure that the food supply is safe and secure and that foods meet foreign and domestic regulatory requirements.


Economic Research Service

Providing analyses of the economic issues affecting the safety of the U.S. food supply.


National Agricultural Statistics Service

Providing statistical data, including agricultural chemical usage data, related to the safety of the food supply.


National Institute of Food and Agriculture

Supporting food safety projects in the land-grant university system and other partner organizations that demonstrate an integrated approach to solving problems in applied food safety research, education, or extension.

Department of Health and Human Services

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Ensuring that all domestic and imported foods, excluding meat, poultry, catfish, and processed egg products, are safe, wholesome, sanitary, and properly labeled.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Preventing the transmission, dissemination, and spread of foodborne illness to protect the public health.

Department of Commerce

National Marine Fisheries Service

Providing voluntary, fee-for-service examinations of seafood for safety and quality.

Environmental Protection Agency


Regulating the use of certain chemicals and substances that present an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment; issuing regulations to establish, modify, or revoke tolerances for pesticide chemical residues; setting national drinking water standard of quality; and consulting with FDA before FDA promulgates regulations for standard of quality for bottled water.               

U.S. Department of Transportation


Establishing procedures for safety inspections to help ensure the sanitary transportation of food.

Department of the Treasury

Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau

Regulating, enforcing, and issuing permits for the production, labeling, and distribution of alcoholic beverages.

Department of Homeland Security

Customs and Border Protection

Inspecting imports, including food products, plants, and live animals, for compliance with U.S. law and assisting all federal agencies in enforcing their regulations at the border.

Federal Trade Commission


Enforcing prohibitions against false advertising for, among other things, food products.

Source: GAO. | GAO-17-74

Note: This table does not include agencies with responsibility for ensuring the safety of food distributed by those agencies as part of a specific program. For example, it does not include USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service’s responsibility for ensuring the safety of school meals (42 U.S.C. § 1769j) or the Food Safety Office within the Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency, which is responsible for food safety issues and technical and quality assurance policies for food for the U.S. military worldwide.

aIn September 2017, the programs carried out by the former Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration, which had a separate entry in the table, were realigned into the Agricultural Marketing Service.

Major trends

There are three growing food safety challenges that highlight the importance of federal food safety oversight:

  • An increasing portion of the U.S. food supply is imported, which stretches the federal government’s resources for ensuring safety of these foods.
  • Consumers are eating more raw and minimally-processed foods, which are generally more susceptible to pathogens.
  • Segments of the population that are particularly susceptible to foodborne illnesses, such as older adults and immune-compromised individuals, are growing.

In addition, the number of reported multistate foodborne illness outbreaks is increasing, potentially due to greater centralization of food processing practices, wider food distribution, and improved detection and investigation methods.

Multistate outbreaks constitute a small proportion of total outbreaks but affect greater numbers of people—only 3 percent of reported outbreaks from 2010-2014 were multistate but they caused 56 percent of the deaths from foodborne illness.

Reported Multistate Foodborne Illness Outbreaks in the United States, 1995–2014

Strategic planning

HHS updated its strategic and performance-planning documents to better address crosscutting food safety efforts. USDA needs to similarly update its strategic and performance planning documents with additional detail on interagency food safety collaborations.

Additionally, at a 2-day meeting GAO hosted in June 2016, 19 food safety and other experts agreed that there is a compelling need to develop a national strategy to address fragmentation and improve food safety oversight. Appropriate entities within the Executive Office of the President need to consult with relevant federal agencies (and other stakeholders) to develop a national strategy for food safety strategy which establishes high-level sustained leadership, identifies resource requirements, and describes how progress will be monitored.

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Safety of Imported FoodFriday, February 27, 2015
Imported Seafood SafetyMonday, October 2, 2017
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