GAO concerned that FDA monitors so few food imports

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The Food and Drug Administration directly tests less than one percent of all food imports and must change tactics to provide more food safety with its existing workforce, says the Government Accountability Office.

In a report (.pdf) dated Sept. 28 but not published until Oct. 31, the GAO says the FDA should use its new authority under the Food Safety Modernization Act to develop a system for accrediting third parties, "which may include foreign governments and private auditing firms, to certify foreign food facilities' compliance with U.S. food safety requirements."

Food imports now account for 16 percent of all domestic consumption, says the report. Seafood imports account for up to 80 percent of domestic consumption, though this number includes seafood caught by American-flagged vessels that send the goods overseas for processing.

FDA does not inspect foreign food facilities or the food itself often enough, says GAO. In 2011, FDA inspected 0.4 percent of food facilities and a mere 0.5 percent of all food entry lines had food samples tested, because of a lack of oversight and manpower.

"If FDA had a comparability assessment agreement with a foreign country, a foreign competent authority would address any identified problems and take regulatory actions across the supply chain, as necessary," reads the report.

However, challenges to such a model include verifying reliability and quality of third party audits, as some auditing firms with current high marks have also been linked to approvals for foods that have caused foodborne illness outbreaks.

GAO says FDA should develop a comparability assessment tool to look at specific imported foods in countries and compare their production processes to those of the United States, instead of looking at a foreign nation's food industry as a whole. This would be similar to efforts by the Agriculture Department's Food Safety Inspection Service for poultry and meat.

GAO suggests an FSIS-basis model would reduce burdens on the FDA and provide actionable best practices for development.

The GAO also recommends the creation of a voluntary fee-based program for importers to encourage third-party certifications.  Encouraging importers to pay for the voluntary service will be a challenge, admits GAO, but is an easy way to expand coverage under existing funding and FDA workforce.

According to auditors, FDA neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendations.

For more:
- download the report, GAO-12-933 (.pdf)

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