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Who's Watching the Watch Dogs? : Food Safety: Illogical, impaired and inconsistent. That's what the General Accounting Office thinks of government's attempts to ensure the safety of the food supply.

August 20, 1992|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The federal government's $1-billion multi-agency bureaucracy designed to protect the nation's food supply is incapable of stemming current contamination rates, according to a recent report by the General Accounting Office, a Congressional watchdog agency.

The 13-month study found a system in which a dozen federal agencies are chartered with partial responsibility for ensuring food safety. The result is a fragmented, highly complex process with frequently duplicated efforts and squandered resources. The GAO described the situation as "illogical," "impaired" and "inconsistent."

"The taxpayer's money is wasted and public health is needlessly jeopardized," says Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.). "The GAO report shows that the responsible government agencies apparently lack the authority . . . or competence to protect the American consumer."

Among the problems are significant disparities in how government officials deal with similar foods that pose identical health risks to the public. For instance, meat and poultry plants are inspected daily under one set of regulations, but seafood facilities, under a different set of laws, are inspected about once every three to five years.

"Some foods may be receiving too much attention, while other foods may not be receiving enough," states the report, "Food Safety and Quality."

The federal approach to regulating the food supply is mired in turn-of-the-century laws that have created inter-agency rivalries over jurisdiction and funding. As the food industry has evolved in recent decades, the federal government has been unable to keep pace.

The two groups chartered with protecting food safety are the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Health and Human Services Department's Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But FSIS and FDA operate under a totally different set of guidelines.

"Laws governing USDA . . . require the food industry to demonstrate to government inspectors that their food products are safe and wholesome," the GAO reports. "By contrast, the laws that govern (FDA) require (it) to prove that a food is contaminated, held under unsanitary conditions that could lead to contamination, or otherwise shown to be unfit for human consumption."

There is also a great disparity in the funding for FSIS, which regulates meat and poultry and is budgeted at about $500 million, and FDA, which oversees most other food commodities and has food-related funding of $184 million. GAO found that in fiscal 1991, FSIS devoted about 9,000 employees to oversee about 6,100 establishments, while FDA devoted about 255 employees to oversee an estimated 53,000 food establishments.

FDA also lacks the authority to detain suspected contaminated food without difficult-to-obtain court orders; FSIS can detain problematic foods at will. "FDA's lack of immediate detention authority when adulterated foods are found impairs the agency's ability to guarantee a safe food supply," GAO concludes.

"FDA lacks the people, the power and the facilities to do its job . . . (because it) is short on resources," Dingell says. "USDA is short on commitment . . . because it has two--sometimes conflicting--goals: promoting American products and protecting the American public."

Added to this mix are other agencies, such as the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service. The GAO study found that these agencies inconsistently communicate with each other, allowing "unsanitary and other unsafe conditions to persist in food processing plants."

"Obviously, the GAO report shows that (the federal food safety effort) is a mess," says Carol Tucker Foreman, a Washington-based consultant and former high-ranking USDA official in the Carter Administration. "And it demonstrates something I have felt for a long time: Not only is the process irrational, but memorandums of understanding between agencies (regarding communication and concerted efforts) are not worth spit."

One example cited by GAO found that 131 seafood plants failed to meet the sanitation standards set by the National Marine Fisheries Service for its voluntary seafood inspection service, which allows products to be sold under a U.S. Department of Commerce seal. Yet, the fisheries service did not notify FDA, which conducts the mandatory seafood inspections, of the sanitation violations. Because of the omission, GAO stated that the 131 plants may still be "unsafe."

Apart from the potentially serious failings in the federal food regulatory system, the GAO report also found some absurdities.

FSIS inspects establishments that process products containing, by weight, at least 2% cooked meat or poultry, or 3% fresh meat or poultry. But GAO found some exceptions to this rule.

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