The Government Accountability Office (GAO) this week released a report assessing Food and Drug Administration (FDA) efforts to address “serious deficiencies” in its food safety research. After a recent survey indicated that only 36 percent of FDA managers felt the agency “was making great progress in keeping pace with scientific advances,” GAO began investigating the ways in which “FDA may use science to more effectively support its regulatory work and to inform the public about food content and safety.”

To this end, the report examines FDA’s “(1) progress in addressing selected recommendations identified by the Science Board; (2) incorporation of scientific and risk analysis into its oversight of the accuracy of food labeling, fresh produce, and the safety of dietary supplements; and (3) a new computer screening tool that may improve its efforts to screen imports using a risk-based approach.” It specifically notes the creation of the Office of the Chief Scientist, which aims to “identify major scientific cross-cutting opportunities across FDA,” as well as a new computer tool, PREDICT, that seeks to improve “risk-based import screening efforts.”

The GAO findings, however, also suggest that “gaps in scientific information have hampered FDA’s oversight of food labeling, fresh produce, and dietary supplements.” In particular, the report claims that insufficient oversight has contributed to “inadequate labeling,” including outdated Nutrition Facts panels and a failure to implement “a simplified, empirically valid system” for front-of-package labeling. According to GAO, “FDA does not have empirical research on consumer perceptions to support enforcement against misleading food labels.” See GAO Report Summary, April 23, 2010.