Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Poster Paper: Assessing State Food Safety Performance Under FDA Contracts: The Public Health Implications of State Variations in a New Regulatory Regime

Friday, November 13, 2015
Riverfront South/Central (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jocelyn Johnston and Rebecca Yurman, American University
Since 2007, federal oversight of food safety has been on the Government Accountability Office’s High Risk List.[1]  Chronic underfunding of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is one relevant factor in this risk assessment.  Although the FDA is responsible for most food safety regulation, the agency increasingly regulates indirectly through contracts with states, which now conduct the majority of federal food safety inspections.  A recent Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigation, conducted in response to a 2009 salmonella outbreak, identified numerous weaknesses in FDA’s administration of its contracts with states, as well as a failure among states to complete their required number of inspections.[2] Yet recent federal legislation – the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) - will significantly increase expectations for the number of FDA annual inspections, and will intensify FDA’s reliance on state contracts.  Ironically, the salmonella outbreak referenced above was traced to a single peanut production facility, which had been recently inspected by a state agency acting under contract with FDA and given a clean bill of health.  Nine people died as a result of the outbreak, over 700 others were sickened across 46 states, and the incident prompted the largest and most expensive food recall in U.S. history.  Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasize that the American food supply is comparatively safe, each year 1 in 6 Americans are sickened by exposure to unsafe food products; as many as 3,000 die annually as a result.

This paper is designed to formally analyze the performance and public health implications of FDA’s increasing reliance on state contracts for food safety regulation.  Through a multiple method design, and using newly acquired CDC data that details foodborne illness outbreaks over 14 years, we use multivariate analysis to analyze the relationship between states’ regulatory capacities and food safety performance.  We address the following questions: To what extent does variation across states’ food safety regulatory capacities affect reporting rates of foodborne illness outbreaks?  Are outbreaks of foodborne illness that occur in states with greater regulatory capacity more confined – i.e. do they affect fewer people – than outbreaks in other states? Are states with greater regulatory capacity more likely to identify the cause of outbreaks than other states? What are the policy implications of these performance and outcome variations?   Our research incorporates earlier qualitative work on this topic utilizing data, analyzed with NVivo, from 58 semi-structured interviews with federal actors responsible for food safety, officials in state organizations performing inspections under contract, and representatives from stakeholder groups including consumer safety advocates and professional food safety organizations.

[1] GAO, High Risk Series: An Update, GAO-07-310 (Washington, D.C.: January 2007). 

[2] Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, “Vulnerabilities in FDA’s Oversight of State Food Facility Inspections,” OEI-02-09-00430 (Washington, D.C.; December 2011).