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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Food Safety Regulation

By Donald L. Noah, DVM, MPH, DACVPM, Midwestern University ; Stephanie R. Ostrowski, DVM, MPVM, DACVPM, Department of Pathobiology, College of Veterinary Medicine, Auburn University

In the USA, food safety is a shared responsibility at various governmental and private levels. Federal departments and agencies have regulatory authority over virtually all food products. State and local governments typically are responsible for sanitary inspections of restaurants and food preparation sites. Food industry sectors have internal quality control procedures to ensure both safe products and adherence to regulatory requirements. Finally, informed consumers are charged with the safe storage, preparation, and service of privately obtained foods.

At the federal level, responsibilities are shared between Congress, various regulatory agencies, and the court system. Congress enacts statutes that give agencies authority to regulate food safety and enforce those regulations. Typically, these statutes are specific in identifying individual agencies but broad in allowing discretion in how those agencies exercise their authority. Finally, the courts review challenges to statutes, regulations, and enforcement actions.

Department of Agriculture:

The Department of Agriculture consists of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The FSIS is the primary food regulatory agency within USDA, domestic and imported (and employs most of the veterinarians in federal service). FSIS responsibilities include inspecting food animals for disease before and after slaughter; inspecting meat and poultry slaughter and processing plants; inspecting domestic and imported meat and poultry products (raw and processed); inspecting processed egg products (liquid, dried, and frozen but not eggs in shells); analyzing food products for microbial, chemical, and toxicologic agents; seeking voluntary recalls of unsafe meat and poultry products; conducting and sponsoring research on meat and poultry safety; and educating industry and consumers on safe food handling practices.

APHIS is responsible for livestock production and transport (preslaughter); inspection and quarantine at U.S. Ports of Entry; and veterinary services, including surveillance and disease control/eradication programs, as well as representing USA animal agriculture internationally.

Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS):

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are within DHHS.

The FDA is the primary food regulatory agency within DHHS. It is responsible for domestic and imported food sold in interstate commerce, including shell eggs (but not meat and poultry), bottled water, wine beverages <7% alcohol, livestock feeds, veterinary drugs, infant formulas, and dietary supplements; adulteration and misbranding of foods, drugs, and cosmetics; inspection of food production establishments and warehouses for contamination by microbial, chemical, and toxicologic agents; and HACCP programs for seafood products and fruit/vegetable juices. The FDA also works with industry to recall unsafe food products, as well as conducts research and educates industry and consumers.

The CDC investigates foodborne illness outbreaks (in conjunction with states), maintains nationwide disease surveillance (FoodNet), develops and advocates for public health policies, conducts research and educational programs in foodborne illness, and trains state and local food safety personnel.

The CDC also operates the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, which is the enforcement authority for International Health Regulations. This Division investigates deaths and disease outbreaks on all international vessels (commercial and cruise ships and aircraft) and is responsible for quarantine stations at major international ports of entry to intercept/destroy smuggled bushmeat, vector species, and other contraband of public health concern.

In addition, the CDC operates the Cruise Ship Inspection Service, which is an enforcement authority responsible for sanitary inspection of cruise ships.

Department of Defense:

The DoD is responsible for emergency food supplies, research activities on military food rations (many civilian applications), and approves food and water sources for all military bases.

Department of Homeland Security:

The DHS prevents terrorist attacks on USA soil (to include foodborne, crop, livestock) and ostensibly has primary authority during attack and response phases.

Department of Commerce:

The DoC is responsible for management of living marine resources, including fisheries.

Environmental Protection Agency:

The EPA has authority over pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. The EPA determines the safety of pesticides and sets tolerance levels in foods, regulates toxic substances to prevent entry into food and the environment, and establishes and enforces safe drinking water standards.