Poster Paper: The Outsourcing of Federal Regulation: The Case of Food Safety

Thursday, November 6, 2014
Ballroom B (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jocelyn Johnston and Rebecca Yurman, American University
The U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for regulating the production of most of the domestic food supply.  FDA has contracted with states to conduct food safety inspections for several years.  However, this trend is intensifying and will become increasingly important because the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) significantly increases requirements for the number of FDA annual inspections, and prescribes growing FDA reliance on states to meet this objective. 

The U.S. has a comparatively safe food supply, and part of the rationale for FSMA is the role of imported food in the American diet and Congress’ interest in enhancing its safety.  FSMA is designed in part to “grow” inspections of imported food, but without new FDA resources.   Hence, we are seeing and will continue to see more outsourcing of food safety inspections through contracts with states.

FSMA was also motivated by problems with state contracts for domestic inspections.  Specifically, the widely covered 2009 salmonella outbreak from a Georgia peanut farm led Congress to order an investigation by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  The OIG reported serious failures in FDA oversight of state inspection contracts and state deficits in the completion of required inspections in their contracts with FDA.  These problems were not news to federal officials; indeed, since 2007, federal oversight of state food safety has been on the Government Accountability Office’s High Risk List.  The Georgia peanut facility was inspected just before the salmonella outbreak.  The inspection, conducted by a Georgia state agency acting under contract with FDA, resulted in a clean bill of health for the facility.  More recently, 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 responsible cantaloupe farm had received the highest safety rating from a third party auditor that had provided critical data to Colorado’s state health department. 

These high-profile failures have heightened the salience of food safety policy and reliance on state contracts for inspections.  This paper explores the food-safety outsourcing policy, the state contracts used to conduct domestic inspections, and the consequent administrative and policy adaptations.  Using a semi-structured interview protocol and NVivo analytic software, we will explain variations in state inspection systems, their effectiveness, and their potential for enhancement or denigration of food safety.  We focus explicitly on political, economic, and structural factors in exploring state effectiveness.  These factors, gleaned from observed patterns in data from over sixty interviews, are used to generate hypotheses regarding determinants of state food safety effectiveness, as well as preliminary explanatory models.

 To provide additional context, the case of the FDA will be compared to that of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which also plays a role in the safety of the domestic food supply.  In addition, the FDA case will be analyzed in the context of our federal system, and compared to another regulatory policy dependent on federal-state joint efforts – namely, environment policy.