It turns out that I am not the only one who has noticed that food regulation is sometimes a little, well, silly. The federal government recently “identified a mother lode of government waste and duplication” and decided that getting rid of it “could potentially save billions of tax dollars annually and help agencies provide more efficient and more effective service.” This according to Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in response to the GAO’s first ever audit of federal agency overlap.
One of the biggest culprits is food safety. There are over 30 food-related laws administered by 15 different federal agencies and still the public lacks confidence in the safety of our food supply. What to do?
GAO recommends that as “a next step, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with the federal agencies that have food safety responsibilities, should develop a government-wide performance plan for food safety that includes results-oriented goals and performance measures and a discussion of strategies and resources.” What does that mean? It sounds an awful lot like the “next-generation-platform-based-information-management-solutions” type stuff we heard about during the tech boom.
GAO insists that “[w]ithout a government-wide performance plan for food safety, decision makers do not have a comprehensive picture of the federal government’s performance on this crosscutting issue.” In other words, if no-one tells the boss what’s going on, the boss won’t know what’s going on. Let’s definitely fix that.
GAO also wants Congress to ask the National Academies of Science to ask a blue ribbon panel of experts to come up with some “alternative food safety organizational structures.” The GAO proposes that Congress ask the NAS to ask the blue ribbon panel to consider the excellent example of Europe. Somehow I don’t think our Tea Party Congress will cotton to that idea. Europe has one food safety agency and one, transparent set of food safety rules. That seems so sensible, no?
The GAO also appears to recommend Food Communism: “a coordination mechanism that provides centralized, executive leadership for the existing organizational structure, led by a central chair who would be appointed by the president and have control over resources.” The Tea Party won’t like that either.
Because the solution to our food problems is to become more European, we can rest assured that nothing at all will change. We will stick with our quaintly provincial and silly system of food regulation. FDA will continue to make sure that shell eggs are properly labeled while the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will continue to ensure the health of the chicks that hatch from them. FDA will continue to regulate products made from the shell eggs (that one hopes were properly labeled) while USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service will continue to grade eggs for beauty and purity. And it will continue to be the case that nobody at all in the federal government will be making sure that the eggs sold in your local grocery store are free of Salmonella.
The good news is that it’s not just food that gets taken to task in this report. The GAO says we could probably save some money “defending our northern border” from our staunch Canadian ally as well, ironically, as our efforts to identify government overlap. No. 14 on GAO’s list of things to de-dupe is “Enterprise Architects,” which it says are “key mechanism for identifying overlap and duplication.”
What a waste.
Kim Egan is Partner in the firm DLA Piper LLP