Panel Paper: Food Safety Policy and the Diffusion of Regulation: The Roles of Third Parties

Saturday, November 9, 2013 : 10:45 AM
DuPont Ballroom H (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jocelyn Johnston and Rebecca Yurman, American University
National U.S. food safety is chiefly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but regulation is in fact diffused, primarily to states, which perform federal inspections under contract with the FDA.  Recent federal legislation – the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) - will significantly increase expectations for the number of FDA annual inspections, and is likely to intensify FDA’s reliance on state agencies.  Furthermore, third parties – including food producers and other contractual agents - perform work for state-based food inspections required under state law. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American food supply is comparatively safe.  Nonetheless, each year 76 million Americans are sickened by exposure to unsafe food products; as many as 5,000 die annually as a result.  Recent high-profile failures have heightened the salience of food safety policy.  In 2009, the media widely reported an outbreak of salmonella from peanut butter.  Nine people died and over 700 others were sickened.  Forty-six states were affected.  This incident prompted the largest and most expensive food recall in U.S. history.  Subsequent investigation assigned responsibility to one production facility in Georgia.  That facility had been recently inspected by a state agency acting under contract with FDA, and had been given a clean bill of health.  In 2011, a high-profile outbreak of listeria poisoning from Colorado cantaloupes killed 33 people and seriously sickened at least 147 others.  A few months earlier, the Colorado cantaloupe farm had received the highest safety rating from a third-party auditor that provided key information to the Colorado department responsible for state-mandated safety inspections.

Since 2007, federal oversight of food safety has been on the Government Accountability Office’s High Risk List.  Chronic underfunding of the FDA is one relevant factor in this risk assessment.  Yet an Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigation, conducted in response to the 2009 peanut incident, identified numerous weaknesses in FDA’s oversight of its state contracts, as well as a failure among states to complete their required number of inspections.  Similar weaknesses had been highlighted in a 2000 OIG report. 

This paper is designed to explore implications of diffused responsibility for food safety in the U.S., including FDA’s increasing reliance on states for food safety compliance.  Using NVivo to analyze data from semi-structured interviews with FDA officials and managers and state food safety officials, we address the following research questions:  How have federal and state food safety officials responded to the regulatory and oversight concerns identified by the OIG?  Which administrative strategies are judged as most effective in overcoming the federal OIG concerns?  What are the determinants of successful state responses to these concerns?  To what extent are states outsourcing state-mandated food safety inspections?   What are the policy implications of this diffusion of responsibility?   Has it improved or weakened inspection policy?