(April 5) The General Accounting Office believes that U.S. food safety regulations work in spite of inconsistent, inefficient and overlapping government oversight.

The GAO advocates a single food safety agency to administer a risk-based inspection system.

The discovery of mad cow disease earlier this year proves how the crazy, quilt-like regulation of the U.S. food supply falls short, and last fall’s cases of hepatitis A linked to imported green onions show that regulatory efforts need more funding to be effective.

Those were two points made by panelists at a March 30 hearing that was devoted to scrutiny of government bureaucracy and overlapping regulation of food safety, but produce industry leaders said Congress and the food industry aren’t eager for massive reform.

PUSH FOR REFORM

Fragmentation of regulatory oversight points to a need for a unified approach to food safety, according to a GAO study presented before a House subcommittee on government reform.

Thirty laws and 12 agencies of the U.S. government administer safety and quality regulations for American food, said Lawrence Dyckman, director of natural resources and environment for the GAO. He spoke before the House Subcommittee on Civil Service and Agency Organization.

“While the food supply is generally safe, each year tens of million of Americans become ill and thousands die from eating unsafe food,” he said in prepared remarks posted on the Internet.

“We cannot afford inefficient, inconsistent and overlapping programs and operations in the food safety system,” he said.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, D.C., told the subcommittee that the outbreak of hepatitis A in Pennsylvania last November, which killed three people and sickened more than 500 others, showed the food safety system lacks adequate safeguards.

One Washington lobbyist, who declined to be identified, said working for a unified agency for food safety is a daunting political task, and one that is unlikely to occur except in case of a catastrophic incident of intentional or unintentional food contamination.

“There is not a big surge to make changes at this point in time,” the lobbyist said.

“It’s certainly a topic that comes up frequently, the advocacy for a single food safety agency,” added Kathy Means, vice president of issues management for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

However, she said the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have managed to interact effectively in recent years.

Because produce is regulated wholly by the FDA, Means said there are generally no overlapping regulatory authorities for fruit and vegetable grower/shippers to deal with.

THREAT OF TERROR

Potential terrorist attacks on the U.S. food supply highlight the need to reorganize the federal food safety system, Dyckman said.

He noted existing statutes don’t give either the USDA or FDA clear authority to enforce food security measures.

The USDA is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry and certain egg products, while the FDA regulates all other foods, including whole (or shell) seafood, milk, grain products and fruits and vegetables.

Meanwhile, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 established the Department of Homeland Security, and that agency provides overall direction on how to protect the U.S. food supply from deliberate contamination.