FDA Action Needed to Strengthen Feed Testing Program

GAO report details weaknesses in program that evaluates industry compliance of the ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban.

Published on: Nov 10, 2005

A new Government Accountability Office study released Wednesday found problems with the Food and Drug Administration's animal feed testing program.

GAO found that in some instances, the evaluation of animal feed samples in the FDA testing program was not being completed until weeks or months after the feed was sampled. GAO also found that FDA is failing to document follow-up reviews when the testing program turns up potential violations of the FDA's ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban. Feeding ruminant byproducts back to ruminants is considered the principal pathway for the transmission of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. 

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, called on FDA Acting Administrator Andrew von Eschenbach to quickly remedy problems outlined in the GAO. "The GAO concluded FDA's feed testing program does not ensure industry compliance with rules prohibiting ruminant byproducts in feed intended for cattle. Keeping ruminant byproducts out of cattle feed is the most important firewall against BSE getting into or spreading among U.S. cattle," says Harkin. "If FDA's testing program is not designed to catch violations in a timely manner, than that needs to be corrected immediately."

The report released Wednesday focuses on a portion of the ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban: testing done to ensure the feed industry complies with FDA guidelines. GAO found that FDA's feed testing program – which is meant to ensure compliance with FDA's rules against feeding ruminant byproducts back to ruminants – in fact provides "no additional assurance of industry compliance" because of FDA's poor design and implementation of the testing program. It notes that FDA's poor documentation of results makes it impossible to assess FDA's thoroughness in addressing feed rule violations.

The GAO study released today found the following:

  • FDA has failed to establish timeframes for FDA laboratories and FDA district offices to analyze and review feed samples for prohibited ruminant materials.  Almost half of the 989 feed samples audited by GAO revealed FDA laboratories took longer than 30 days to analyze samples.
  • Twenty-one samples took longer than 100 days.  As a result, by the time laboratories districts finish their work, samples found in violation of the feed ban already may have been consumed by cattle.  
  • FDA districts also were not documenting their findings in a manner to allow the accuracy of testing feed samples to be verified.
  • FDA headquarters were not exercising adequate oversight of the feed testing program.

"FDA needs to provide clear direction to its labs and district offices that analyze cattle feed and take a more active role in managing the feed testing program," says Harkin. "Right now, it appears FDA's feed testing program is largely for show and not ensuring industry compliance"

In March 2005, Harkin released a GAO report on compliance with FDA's anti-BSE feed rules. That report outlined problems in FDA's enforcement of the ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban and a lack of compliance with the FDA rules by the animal feed industry. GAO discovered that while FDA claims 99% industry compliance with its regulations, that assertion is based on inspecting only a fraction of all feed plants and on not counting a plant as in violation of the FDA feed rules if the plant eventually works to comply.

FDA started its feed testing program in August 2003 to ensure industry compliance with the feed ban by sampling and analyzing animal feed and feed ingredients for prohibited ruminant byproduct materials. FDA's ruminant-to-ruminant feed ban rule is designed to prevent the spread of BSE by keeping ruminant animal material out of feed for U.S. cattle and other ruminant animals. Allowing animal proteins that are infected with BSE into feed for cattle and other ruminants is thought to be a major route by which BSE is transmitted among animals.