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Food Safety - High Risk Issue

The patchwork nature of the federal oversight of food safety underscores the importance of the government to plan more strategically to inspect food production processes, identify and react more quickly to any outbreaks of contaminated food, and focus on achieving results to promote the safety and integrity of the nation's food supply.

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The fragmented federal oversight of food safety has been a longstanding concern because it results in inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources. In 2007, federal oversight of food safety was added to GAO’s high-risk list. GAO’s 2017 update of the high-risk list noted that the Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had taken some positive steps to address fragmentation in the federal food oversight system but that additional steps were needed. 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. The two primary agencies are USDA, which is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry, processed egg products, and catfish and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for virtually all other food. FDA and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service do not always coordinate—for example, on drug residue testing methods, as called for in a 1984 memorandum of understanding between the agencies. As a result, the agencies are not leveraging each other’s knowledge and resources to develop drug residue testing methods. In January 2018, FDA and USDA signed an agreement to improve their coordination in certain areas, including produce safety and biotechnology products, which is a positive development.  Table 1 describes the food safety responsibilities of all 15 agencies.

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. I 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, which 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 in general are 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, as reflected in data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), shown in the figure below. Multistate outbreaks constitute a small proportion of total outbreaks but affect greater numbers of people. According to CDC data, 3 percent of reported outbreaks from 2010 to 2014 were multistate, but they were associated with 56 percent of deaths. CDC cites several potential contributors to the increase in reported multistate outbreaks, including greater centralization of food processing practices, wider food distribution, and improved detection and investigation methods.

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

Number of Reported Multistate Foodborne Illness Outbreaks in the United States, 1995-2014

Source: GAO analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. | GAO-16-425

The need for a national strategy

According to food safety and government performance experts, there is a compelling need to develop a national strategy to address fragmentation and improve food safety oversight. Key elements of such a strategy should include: (1) stating the purpose, (2) establishing sustained leadership, (3) identifying resource requirements, (4) monitoring progress, and (5) identifying short-term actions—in addition to long-term actions—to gain traction. As part of this effort, developing a governmentwide performance plan on food safety and taking steps to formalize governmentwide leadership across food safety agencies, is also critical.

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    • Steve Morris
    • Director, Natural Resources and Environment
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