Who’s Watching What You Eat?

photo of fruit and meantAlthough the U.S. food supply is generally considered safe, foodborne illness remains a costly, common public health problem. The safety and quality the food supply is governed by a highly-complex system—involving 16 federal agencies administering over 30 federal laws. Is there a coordinated strategy behind agencies’ management of myriad food program responsibilities?

Today’s WatchBlog looks at fragmentation in the federal food safety oversight system.

Too many cooks?

For years now, we’ve been reporting on the inefficiencies in the federal food safety oversight system. Take the egg, for example. In our past work, we described how

  • the Food and Drug Administration within the Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for ensuring that shell eggs are safe, wholesome, and properly labelled, and oversees the safety of feed that hens eat;
  • the Food Safety and Inspection Service within U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for the safety of eggs processed into egg products; and
  • various other USDA entities are responsible for setting quality and grade standards (like Grade A) for shell eggs and helping to ensure that laying hens are free from Salmonella at birth.

The fragmented federal food safety oversight system causes inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.

Food for thought

photo of people handling fruit and meatIn January 2007, because of risks to the economy and to public health and safety, we added the federal oversight of food safety to our High Risk List—a list of areas particularly vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or in need of total transformation.

The federal government has taken actions to address food safety since 2007, but results have been mixed. For example:

  • The President established the Food Safety Working Group to coordinate federal efforts and develop goals to make food safer in 2009. Although its work resulted in a number of accomplishments, the group stopped meeting in 2011.
  • The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was enacted in 2011. It represented the largest expansion and overhaul of U.S. food safety authorities since the 1930s. Although the Act called for agencies to coordinate and consult in the development and implementation of certain food safety regulations and programs, it did not provide for centralized, broad-based collaboration across all food safety regulations and programs.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services has taken steps to more fully describe how it works with other agencies to achieve food safety-related goals and objectives. While this is an encouraging step, USDA has not yet undertaken similar steps.

We continue to work on identifying solutions.

In 2016, with assistance from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, we convened a meeting at which 19 food safety and government performance experts agreed on the need to develop a national strategy to provide a framework that strengthens the federal food safety oversight system and addresses fragmentation.

For all of these reasons, this issue remains on our 2017 High Risk List. We recommended that the Executive Office of the President lead the effort to develop a strategy to improve federal oversight of food safety.

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Residential Solar Electricity and Other Energy Saving Technologies (podcast)

GAO Podcast IconRooftop solar panels, smart thermostats, and other residential technologies increasingly allow customers to generate and store electricity, and better manage its use. While these technologies may allow people to more efficiently manage their power use—and lower their bills—too much customer-generated power could exceed local electricity grid capacity and lead to higher infrastructure costs.

A team led by Frank Rusco, a director in our Natural Resources and Environment team, recently looked at federal and state incentives to encourage these technologies, as well as their potential benefits and challenges. Listen to what they found:


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Women’s History Month: The Story of Women at GAO

For Women’s History Month, we’ve blogged about our work on women’s issues.

Today, we’re sharing a glimpse of the story (past and present) of women at GAO.

Employees of GAO’s Check Accounting Division, 1924

In 1921, GAO had 1,708 employees. Like the federal government in general, GAO’s workforce grew during World War II to more than 14,000 at its peak in 1946. Women accounted for a large part of this federal hiring, and over 60% of GAO employees at war’s end were women, mostly in clerical positions, with some notable exceptions.

The GAO workforce shrank after the war, and the proportion of women dropped, too. The nature of the work became more professional, requiring degrees and training in accounting and auditing. Comptroller General Lindsay Warren’s executive officer is on record in early 1945 as saying, “Practically any position in the office is available for women, if they can make the grade; that is, they are not stopped because they happen to be women.” However, in that postwar period, women were generally less likely to pursue the training required, if they were even in the workforce at all.

GAO leadership at the time also expressed reluctance to assign women to “comprehensive audit work” because of complications that might arise with travel, and because of leadership’s beliefs regarding how other government agencies might perceive women auditors.

In her own words

As part of an oral history project, three women (two attorneys and one administrative assistant, shown right) spoke about their thoughts and experiences as GAO employees in the office of General Counsel and the Transportation Division. The transcript of the interview was published in 1990 and chronicles the realities of being a working woman—or rarer still, a woman attorney—from the 1940s through the 1980s.

One of the women interviewed, Ms. Rubar, described working at GAO during the war years:

And, of course, the men weren’t used to working with women except when the women were in a subservient capacity, and they found it a little bit difficult, I think.

Later, Ms. Rubar earned her law degree. However, she initially didn’t apply to work as an attorney for the agency. As she described the situation,

…[the Associate General Counsel] knew when I passed the bar, and he said that was wonderful, but he said to tell me not to think I was ever going to come to work in the General Counsel’s office because that office will never have a woman… There had been a woman, apparently a long time before, who had been extremely difficult, and, of course, men could be difficult and get away with it in those times, but women could not.

However, she ultimately got the job. She told the historian, Dr. Roger Trask, that Elmer Staats, the Comptroller General at the time, was “wonderful.”

I think he did a great deal to help women and minorities and to try to eradicate any kind of prejudice that existed…I just felt very proud of working for him.

One of the best places to work

And he and other subsequent GAO leaders continued to push for change. In 1987, 39% of employees at GAO were women—and less than 10% of our executives. Fewer than 1 in 5 women at GAO that year had a graduate or advanced degree.

Today, women comprise well over half of the staff at the agency, and fill 40% of our executive positions. Nearly 60% have a graduate or advanced degree and two different women have served as General Counsel, the top attorney at the agency.

We even received a nod from The Washington Post in October for some of these numbers, and for consistently being rated one of the Best Places to Work in the federal government.

You can learn more about GAO’s history—our building, our name, and past Comptrollers General, on the WatchBlog and also by checking out the history section of our website.

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What’s in Your Water?

photo of federal land and waterIn honor of today’s World Water Day, we are taking a look at our work on combined sewer overflows in cities with declining populations—and the serious wastewater problem they pose.

Combined sewer systems collect stormwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater into one pipe. During heavy rain or snow storms, the volume of this wastewater can exceed capacity, causing these systems to release excess, untreated wastewater directly into nearby water bodies.

This wastewater often has pathogens, bacteria, and other pollutants, which hurts water quality. We recently looked at the capacity of cities with declining populations to address this major source of water pollution, as well as other infrastructure needs. Today’s WatchBlog discusses what we found.

Wastewater needs…

The EPA estimates that water and wastewater utilities across the United States plan to spend about $655 billion over 20 years to maintain, upgrade, or replace major water infrastructure.

For wastewater in particular, 859 cities (primarily in the Northeast and Midwest) have combined sewer systems, and EPA estimates that planned projects to prevent or control combined sewer overflows—such as building holding tanks or tunnels—will cost about $48 billion over the next 20 years.

…and challenges

However, we found that declining populations are making it challenging for cities to pay for these types of infrastructure improvements.

Figure 1: Location of U.S. Cities with 2010 Populations of 50,000 and Greater That Experienced a Decline in Population from 1980 to 2010

(Excerpted from GAO-16-785)

Many midsize and large cities—i.e., those with 50,000 to over 100,000 people—have lost a substantial percentage of their populations. For example, 674 midsize and large cities had a 2010 population greater than 50,000, but 15 percent of them had experienced population declines from 1980 to 2010. Most of these cities are in the Midwest and Northeast.

These cities must deal with a decline in utility revenues from a loss of ratepayers, which makes it more difficult to address their water infrastructure needs.

Green infrastructure could help

According to wastewater utilities we spoke with, green technologies and practices—known as green infrastructure—are a potentially less costly approach to controlling stormwater and reducing the risks of combined sewer overflows.

Green infrastructure uses practices such as vegetated areas, stormwater collection, and permeable pavements to enhance storage, infiltration, and reuse of stormwater.

For example, some wastewater utilities we looked at are considering using vacant lands for green infrastructure to help control stormwater runoff that can lead to sewer overflows.

For more information on wastewater management, check out our latest report.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Alfredo Gómez, Director, Natural Resources and Environment at gomezj@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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Transportation Security of Radioactive Sources (podcast)

GAO Podcast IconSince September 11, 2001, concerns have been raised that medical, industrial, and research related radioactive materials could be stolen by terrorists and used to create a “dirty bomb.” As such, transportation security of high-risk radioactive materials is particularly important, and multiple federal agencies work to protect them when they’re on the road.

A team led by Shelby Oakley, a director in our Natural Resources and Environment team, recently reviewed the security of radioactive materials during ground transport. Listen to what they found:


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Planning of Metrorail’s SafeTrack Projects (podcast)

GAO Podcast IconIn response to serious safety concerns regarding Washington, DC’s Metrorail system, in May 2016 the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority started SafeTrack—a large-scale rehabilitation project. Along with addressing immediate safety concerns, SafeTrack was intended to tackle a backlog of track maintenance projects.

A team led by Mark Goldstein, a director in our Physical Infrastructure team, recently looked at the SafeTrack project, and safety and oversight issues with DC’s Metrorail. Listen to what they found:


  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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What’s in the Air Force A-10’s Future?

Figure 1: A-10 from the Maryland Air National Guard's 104th Fighter SquadronOne of the most contentious issues in the defense budget debates over the last three years has been the fate of the Air Force’s A-10 attack jet—a.k.a “the warthog.”

Will (or should) the A-10 survive to fight another day? Today’s WatchBlog looks at the trade-offs involved in divesting from the A-10.

Tough questions for the Air Force Continue reading

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Domestic Abuse and Firearms

Today’s WatchBlog looks at another GAO report—in this case, regarding FBI’s firearm background check system and domestic violence records. We examined this issue at the request of Congress, and today we share some of what we found about the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), and the challenges of conducting checks that involve domestic violence records. Continue reading

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Women’s History Month

GAO logoMarch is Women’s History Month, so we’re taking the opportunity to look at some of our recent work on a range of issues affecting women. Read on for what we’ve found about women in combat, corporate boards, clinical trials, and more.

Women in combat Continue reading

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GAO Translations: Reaching New Audiences

thumbnail international affairsThe federal government operates programs and provides assistance all over the world—and evaluating them can require foreign language skills. We will also, on occasion, issue summaries or full versions of our work in translation.

For this week’s National Foreign Language Week, today’s WatchBlog shares some of our works in translation.

Academic freedom in U.S. universities in China (Chinese) Continue reading

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