The US Food Safety System

A Case of Shared Government Responsibilities

Man carrying full shopping basket in grocery store

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Ensuring food safety is one of those federal government functions we only notice when it fails. Considering that the United States is one of the best-fed nations in the world, widespread outbreaks of food-borne illness are rare and usually quickly controlled. However, critics of the U.S. food safety system often point to its multi-agency structure which they say too often prevents the system from acting swiftly and efficiently. Indeed, food safety and quality in the United States is governed by no less than 30 federal laws and regulations administered by 15 federal agencies.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) share primary responsibility for overseeing the safety of the U.S. food supply. In addition, all states have their own laws, regulations, and agencies dedicated to food safety. The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is mainly responsible for investigating localized and nationwide outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.

In many cases, the food safety functions of the FDA and USDA overlap; particularly inspection/enforcement, training, research, and rulemaking, for both domestic and imported food. Both USDA and FDA currently conduct similar inspections at some 1,500 dual jurisdiction establishments -- facilities that produce foods regulated by both agencies.

Role of the USDA

The USDA has primary responsibility for the safety of meat, poultry, and certain egg products. USDA's regulatory authority comes from the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, the Egg Products Inspection Act and the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act.

USDA inspects all meat, poultry and egg products sold in interstate commerce, and re-inspects imported meat, poultry, and egg products to makes sure they meet U.S. safety standards. In egg processing plants, the USDA inspects eggs before and after they are broken for further processing.

Role of the FDA

The FDA, as authorized by the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and the Public Health Service Act, regulates foods other than the meat and poultry products regulated by the USDA. FDA is also responsible for the safety of drugs, medical devices, biologics, animal feed and drugs, cosmetics, and radiation emitting devices.

New regulations giving the FDA the authority to inspect large commercial egg farms took effect on July 9, 2010. Prior to this rule, FDA inspected egg farms under its broad authorities applicable to all food, focusing on farms already linked to recalls. Apparently, the new rule did not take effect soon enough to allow for proactive inspections by the FDA of the egg farms involved in the August 2010 recall of nearly half a billion eggs for salmonella contamination.

Role of the CDC

The Centers for Disease Control leads federal efforts to gather data on foodborne illnesses, investigate foodborne illnesses and outbreaks, and monitor the effectiveness of prevention and control efforts in reducing foodborne illnesses. CDC also plays a key role in building state and local health department epidemiology, laboratory, and environmental health capacity to support foodborne disease surveillance and outbreak response.

Differing Authorities

All of the federal laws listed above empower the USDA and FDA with different regulatory and enforcement authorities. For example, food products under FDA's jurisdiction may be sold to the public without the agency's prior approval. On the other hand, food products under USDA's jurisdiction must generally be inspected and approved as meeting federal standards before being marketed.

Under current law, UDSA continuously inspects slaughter facilities and examines each slaughtered meat and poultry carcass. They also visit each processing facility at least once during each operating day. For foods under FDA's jurisdiction, however, federal law does not mandate the frequency of inspections.

Addressing Bioterrorism

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal food safety agencies began taking on the added responsibility of addressing the potential for deliberate contamination of agriculture and food products - bioterrorism.

An executive order issued by President George W. Bush in 2001 added the food industry to the list of critical sectors that need protection from possible terrorist attack. As a result of this order, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 established the Department of Homeland Security, which now provides overall coordination for protecting the U.S. food supply from deliberate contamination.

Finally, the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 granted the FDA additional food safety enforcement authorities similar to those of the USDA.

Cooperation with State and Local Food Safety Systems

According to the U.S. Department Health and Human Services (HHS), more than 3,000 state, local, and territorial agencies are responsible for food safety in retail food establishments within their jurisdictions. Most states and territories have separate departments of health and of agriculture, while most counties and cities have similar food safety and inspection agencies. In most states and local jurisdictions, the department of health has authority over restaurants, while the agriculture department is responsible for food safety in retail supermarkets.

While the states inspect meat and poultry sold in the state where they are produced, the process is monitored by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Under the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 and the Wholesome Poultry Products Act of 1968, state inspection programs are required to be “at least equal to” federal meat and poultry inspection programs. The federal FSIS takes over responsibility for inspections if a state voluntarily ends its inspection programs or fails to maintain the “at least equal to” standard. In a few states, state employees conduct meat and poultry inspections in federally-operated plants under federal-state cooperative inspection contracts.

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Longley, Robert. "The US Food Safety System." ThoughtCo, Feb. 19, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, February 19). The US Food Safety System. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "The US Food Safety System." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).