The U.S. Food Safety System
Jul 12, 2017
Every year, American consumers spend about $1.4 trillion on food and another $170 billion on alcoholic beverages. About half of that food is prepared and consumed within household residences, and the remainder is purchased and eaten at restaurants and other eating establishments as well as through institutional cafeterias at schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and prisons around the country. On average, an estimated 48 million Americans get sick with a foodborne illness every year, 128,000 of whom are hospitalized due to such illnesses, and 3,000 people die from it.
Because of these food safety issues, the U.S. government takes steps to ensure that all of this food eaten by Americans is safe and wholesome. Federal involvement in this function dates back to the public reaction to the unsanitary conditions in the U.S. meatpacking industry described in the novel The Jungle, written by novelist Upton Sinclair in 1906. In that same year, Congress passed and President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Federal Food and Drug Act, followed four years later with the enactment of the Federal Meat Inspection Act by President William Howard Taft.
The U.S. Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) identifies 15 different federal agencies with at least some role in the enforcement of U.S. food safety laws, but the primary responsibility lies with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The FDA was originally established as the Food, Drug, and Insecticide Administration as part of USDA in 1937, and transferred to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now HHS) in 1953. FSIS was established within USDA in its current form in 1981. FSIS has jurisdiction over the inspection of meat, poultry, and some egg products, and FDA has jurisdiction over every other type of food, including milk and dairy products. Despite FDA’s organizational departure from USDA more than 60 years ago, both FDA and FSIS’s budgets remain under the control of the House and Senate Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittees.
In the current fiscal year (2017), FDA has an overall budget of $4.65 billion, about 40 percent of which is generated by user fees charged by the agency for several of its drug testing procedures. The food safety component of the agency, which includes food safety field staff and staff for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), gets about 22 percent of the total budget, or $1.02 billion. This funding supports about 3,900 full-time employees, 2,800 in the field offices and just over 1,000 working at CFSAN headquarters in College Park, Maryland and research facilities at three other locations. FSIS has received a similar amount for this fiscal year, at $1.032 billion. FSIS has about 9,500 full-time employees, about 8,900 of them serving in the field. Both agencies have jurisdiction over the safety of both domestic and imported foods in their respective bailiwicks. In the last few decades, U.S. meat packing and food production facilities have adopted Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Practices (HACCP) as required by the food safety agencies, that help them identify at what point in the production process contamination or other problems are more likely to occur, and focus their attention on minimizing those problems.
The agencies handle their food safety oversight responsibilities quite differently. FSIS stations its inspectors inside the 6,200 meat processing facilities they regulate, and FSIS personnel must be physically present in order for slaughter and processing to take place. FSIS’s basic functions are to:
- conduct inspections of each animal carcass,
- set appropriate food safety standards,
- verify that those safety standards are met through inspection, and
- maintain a strong enforcement program when plants do not meet these standards.
Unlike FSIS, FDA delegates much of the responsibility for on-site inspection of food preparation facilities to more than 3,000 state local, and tribal agencies, although those agency employees carrying out such inspections have to be trained to understand and carry out FDA’s Food Code provisions. That role takes those staff into more than 1 million eating establishments around the country. FDA staffers conduct on-site inspections of food production facilities under the agency’s jurisdiction, but those occur as occasional visits and not under a continuous process as is the case with FSIS. These visits take place as part of a routinely scheduled investigation, a survey, or in a response to a reported problem
Both agencies also have responsibility for the wholesomeness of food imported into the United States FDA has set up offices in eight foreign countries to help ensure the safety of the product coming out of food production facilities in these countries, as well as scrutinizing records of imported products and conducting spot testing of the safety of some imported foods FSIS certifies the eligibility of individual facilities in foreign countries to export meat to the United States if they are assessed to have equivalent safety standards to ours. They then inspect the imported product once it arrives in this country.
In late June, USDA suspended all imports of fresh beef from Brazil, which just became eligible to ship earlier this year, due to the rejection of 11 percent of all such imports since March 2017. The Secretary of Agriculture had ordered inspection of all Brazilian beef imports starting in that month, due to disclosure of bribes paid to Brazilian inspectors by some meat processing facilities. Brazilian president Michel Temer is mired in a scandal in which he has been formally accused of taking millions in bribes from the Brazil-based international meat-processing company JBS.