The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a March 2011 report identifying 34 areas, including agriculture, “where agencies, offices, or initiatives have similar or overlapping objectives or provide similar services to the same populations; or where government missions are fragmented across multiple agencies.” Commissioned by Congress, this first annual report also summarizes 47 areas where lawmakers or regulators could further reduce the cost of government. These results reflect both new research undertaken by GAO and previously compiled reports, such as the February 16, 2011, edition of the High-Risk Series covered in Issue 382 of this Update.

When it comes to the agriculture sector, according to GAO, “[t]he fragmented federal oversight of food safety has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.” The report notes that 15 federal agencies “collectively administer at least 30 food related laws,” with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) overseeing meat, poultry, processed egg products, and catfish, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) responsible “for virtually all other food, including seafood.” GAO particularly found fault with the 2008 Farm Bill, which split seafood safety between USDA and FDA, as well as the import screening system used by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, which evidently does not notify USDA or FDA when imported food shipments arrive at U.S. ports.

In addition to directing the Office of Management and Budget to work with federal agencies to develop “a governmentwide [sic] performance plan for food safety,” the report identifies several “alternative organizational structures that could be analyzed in more detail.” These structures include: (i) “a single food safety agency, either housed within an existing agency or established as an independent entity, that assumes responsibility for all aspects of food safety at the federal level”; (ii) “a single food safety inspection agency that assumes responsibility for food safety inspection activities, but not other activities, under an existing department, such as USDA or FDA”; (iii) “a data collection and risk analysis center for food safety that consolidates data collected from a variety of sources and analyzes it at the national level to support risk-based decision making”; and (iv) “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.”

In the meantime, GAO has called on Congress to enact “comprehensive risk-based food safety legislation” that goes beyond the January 2011 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. Although these changes might not produce significant cost savings, the report concludes that “new costs may be avoided by preventing further fragmentation” and that reorganization efforts “could result in a number of nonfinancial benefits,” including “improved consumer confidence in the systems.”

GAO has also speculated that reducing some farm program payments could indeed result in “substantial savings,” as much as $5 billion annually if USDA eliminated or reduced direct payments to farmers, and “particularly those to large farming operations.” The report estimates that government could save approximately (i) $800 million over 10 years “by reducing payment and income eligibility limits for a very small portion of recipients”; (ii) $600 million annually “by reducing the portion of acres used to calculate payments to 75 percent”; and (iii) $5 billion annually “by terminating or phasing out the payments.”

“Given the challenges noted above, careful, thoughtful actions will be needed to address many of the issues discussed in this report, particularly those involving potential duplication,” notes U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro in the report’s introduction, which also highlights the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) Modernization Act of 2010. “Implementing provisions of the new act—such as its emphasis on establishing outcomeoriented goals covering a limited number of crosscutting policy areas—could play an important role in clarifying desired outcomes, addressing program performance spanning multiple organizations, and facilitating future actions to reduce unnecessary duplication, overlap, and fragmentation.” See Law360, March 1, 2011; Bloomberg, March 2, 2011.