GAO Report Confirms the Obvious: Food Safety Has Been Driving the Bus at FDA’s FVM Program

March 13, 2018By Riëtte van Laack & Ricardo Carvajal

On March 5, 2018, GAO released to the public a report titled “Food Safety and Nutrition: FDA Can Build on Existing Efforts to Measure Progress and Implement Key Activities.” The report confirms that FDA’s Food and Veterinary Medicine (FVM) Program has been primarily preoccupied with implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and other food safety activities. In the period between January 2011 (when FSMA was enacted) and September 2017, FDA published “33 key proposed or final regulations” – 21 of which related only to food safety – and “111 key draft or final guidance documents” – 82 of which related only to food safety. (A list of the regulations and guidance documents is included in Appendix I). The numbers for staffing and expenditures are considerably more lopsided, with approximately 98% of FTEs and expenditures dedicated to food safety-related activities.

The GAO report gives FDA credit for setting goals for food safety and nutrition related activities via the FVM Program Strategic Plan, but notes that the Agency “cannot fully assess progress” because performance measures have not been developed for all of the FVM Program’s strategic objectives. In addition, GAO notes that the Strategic Plan as yet lacks an implementation plan that would lay out “specific actions, priorities, and milestones” to execute the identified strategies. GAO also notes that it is not clear and FDA does not document how the Agency determines whether it will issue a regulation or guidance. Consequently, FDA cannot ensure consistency and transparency in this determination.

Based on its findings, GAO recommends that FDA: (1) “develop performance measures with associated targets and time frames for all eight of its food safety- and nutrition-related objectives”; (2) “complete a plan that includes specific actions, priorities, and milestones for implementing the FVM Program’s strategic plan”; and (3) “uniformly document the bases for their decisions for issuing either regulations or guidance related to food safety and nutrition.”

In its comments on the report, FDA concurred with GAO’s recommendations. On the day the report was issued, Commissioner Gottlieb issued a statement announcing FDA’s commitment to modernize and streamline its food and nutrition programs, and summarizing some of the Agency’s recent safety and nutrition related activities. Dr. Gottlieb also stated that he will soon “provide more details on a nutrition strategy to reduce preventable death and disease through better nutrition.” It remains to be seen what form that strategy will take, and whether the Agency will shift more of its resources toward nutrition-related activities, given the work that remains to be done on FSMA implementation.