Who Decides What Food Is Safe For Us? Untangling the Food Regulatory System

Victorian Cartoon Depicting the Scope of Food Adulteration

Before the passage of the Food and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906, there were no overarching federal laws governing the safety and quality of food in the U.S. As the above cartoon shows, this had a substantial impact on the quality of foods sold, with milk often substantially watered down prior to sale, and unsavory or even poisonous non-food additives used to stretch out food supplies. While country dwellers had access to healthy and real food, city dwellers, especially from the lower classes were stuck with eating foods which might be adulterated or even toxic.

Adulterated "butter"
“Bogus butter” was the term used for oleomargarine, which was sometimes made from rancid animal fat and other dangerous ingredients. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

We are a long way from that era today, with not one but two federal regulatory agencies responsible for ensuring that the food we eat is both high-quality and safe. Per U.S. law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for regulating meat and poultry products, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates everything else. However, because some foods contain meat as well as other foods, the rules surrounding food regulation are complex and sometimes Byzantine. For instance, who regulates spaghetti sauce depends on whether the sauce contains meat. Additionally, while the USDA does not regulate whole eggs in the shell, it does regulate egg products.

So what do these agencies actually regulate for? The USDA inspects all meat sold nationwide (meat only sold locally/within a state can be inspected by the state). The USDA is looking for violations of food safety and hygiene and making sure the animals are healthy before slaughter. They will also from time to time take meat samples to test for foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella enterica or pathogenic Escherichia coli to validate that the companies are meeting federal microbial food safety requirements for these pathogens (and others). The FDA is responsible for making sure growers and producers of vegetables, milk, and other foods are meeting federal safety standards. However, the FDA inspections branch has fewer personnel and less funding than the USDA, so it conducts comparatively fewer inspections. Between inspections, it’s up to the companies to maintain the day to day compliance with federal regulations and ensure they’re consistently producing food safety. They have strong incentives to do so from both an economic and legal standpoint, but shoddy food safety practices and subsequent foodborne outbreaks still occur.

Recent developments:

FSMA: The recent passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA, 2011), increases FDA oversight of produce and other foods; however, no extra funding was built into the budget to support this, so it is uncertain how well this will be implemented.

Salmonella in poultry: while pathogenic E. coli (E. coli 0157:H7 and a few other types) are officially considered adulterants and prohibited in ground/chopped beef, Salmonella is not considered an adulterant. The USDA does have rules about what percent of chickens/turkeys can test positive for Salmonella at an individual processing plant, but Salmonella is still allowed, since poultry is always cooked before eating. However, after the Foster Farms outbreak, various groups began advocating for increased regulations against Salmonella in poultry.

Stronger regulations against supplements: While there’s not a huge push for this, it’d be a good idea. Currently, dietary supplements (vitamins, probiotics, etc) are not well-regulated for efficacy or safety. This Atlantic article provides a good overview of the problems with the current system and makes a good case for increased oversight/regulation.



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