Testimony from Lisa Shames, Acting Director for Natural Resources and Environment at the Government Accountability Office, was posted on the GAO Web site after she testified during the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing on food safety yesterday. Ms. Shames pointed out numerous flaws in our food safety system during her testimony, including the government’s ability to manage and enforce food recalls:
USDA and FDA did not know how promptly and completely companies were carrying out recalls. The agencies were not using their data systems to effectively monitor and manage their recall programs. They did not track important dates to calculate how long companies take to carry out recalls and the percentage of food that is recovered. Furthermore, managers did not receive routine reports on the progress of ongoing recalls to target program resources. Moreover, neither agency’s guidance provided time frames for how quickly companies should initiate and carry out recalls. Consequently, companies may have had less impetus to notify downstream customers and remove potentially unsafe food from the marketplace.
• USDA and FDA did not promptly verify that recalls had reached all segments of the distribution chain, yet monitoring the effectiveness of a company’s recall actions is the agencies’ primary role in a food recall. For the 10 USDA recalls in 2003 we examined in depth, USDA staff averaged 38 days to complete verification checks, and for the 10 FDA recalls we examined in depth, FDA staff averaged 31 days. These time
frames exceeded the expected shelf life for some perishable foods that were recalled, such as fresh ground beef and fresh-cut bagged lettuce.
• The procedures USDA and FDA used to alert consumers to a recall—press releases and Web postings—may not have been effective. According to consumer groups and others, relatively few consumers may see that information. They identified additional methods to notify the public, such as posting recall notices in grocery stores and directly notifying consumers using “shoppers’ club” information.
In earlier testimony (February 8, 2007) before the Before the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA, and Related Agencies, Committee on Appropriations, David M. Walker, Comptroller General of the United States, asserted that GAO’s designation of food safety as high-risk was appropriate, stating that our food safety system could be improved in a number of ways. Mr. Walker concluded his testimony on the high-risk designation:
As I have discussed, GAO designated the federal oversight of food safety as a high-risk area that is in need of a broad-based transformation to achieve greater economy, efficiency, effectiveness, accountability, and sustainability. The high-risk designation raises the priority and visibility of this necessary transformation and thus can bring needed attention to address the weaknesses caused by a fragmented system. GAO stands ready to provide professional, objective, fact-based, and nonpartisan information and thereby assist Congress as it faces tough choices on how to fundamentally reexamine and transform the government. Lasting solutions to high-risk problems offer the potential to save billions of dollars, dramatically improve service to the American public, strengthen public confidence and trust in the performance and accountability of our national government, and ensure the ability of government to deliver on its promises.
Ms. Shames echoed Mr. Walker’s sentiments in the conclusion of her own testimony:
The recent outbreaks of E. coli in spinach and Salmonella in peanut butter, along with outbreaks of contaminated pet food, underscore the need of a broad-based transformation of the federal oversight of food safety to achieve greater economy, efficiency, effectiveness, accountability, and sustainability. GAO’s high-risk designation raises the priority and visibility of this necessary transformation and thus can bring needed attention to address the weaknesses caused by a fragmented system. Among the reasons we designated the federal oversight of food safety as a high-risk area is that USDA and FDA have limited recall authority. Even within this limited authority, we found that these agencies could have done better in carrying out their food recall programs. Positively, agency officials are taking actions intended to improve their food recall programs. However, we have not reviewed these actions to determine if they adequately address our recommendations.