The Politics of Food Safety – Part One

Well, unless you have had your ear buds in and have sequestered yourself from all media, you are aware that November is Election Month! November 6th is the day that voters across the country will weigh in on their representation at local, state, and national levels.

Given this frenzy, Jeannie and I thought the politics of food safety would be a great blog theme for this month. Specifically, we will cover the “what” and “why” of legislative actions designed to improve the safety of food from farm to fork.

History Lesson

Let’s start at the beginning. In 1906, muck-racking journalism was alive and well, and a little book called “The Jungle”, written by Upton Sinclair, was published. The book vividly described the, shall we say, less than sanitary conditions in the meat packing plants of Chicago from the perspective of a Polish worker. Consumers were appalled and demanded action from government; hence passage of the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. This act was updated in 1968 and again following the E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants in 1993. As a part of that update, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plans were required for meat processing facilities. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the government agency that for the most part, oversees regulations for meat, poultry, and other agricultural products that cross state lines. Many states have laws that meet or exceed the federal rules and allow those to be used for foods kept within state lines.

The Food and Drug Administration also plays a major role to in ensuring the safety of food. Their role began with passage of the Food, Drugs and Cosmetic Act of 1938, in response to citizens wanting protection from the traveling “snake oil” salesmen who would sell an elixir promising lifelong health and then skedaddle out of town. There have been updates to this Act over the years, with reviews of coloring agents that can be used (anyone remember Red Dye #2?) and labeling requirements. FDA Rules oversee most processed or packaged foods that cross state lines. State laws may be used if they are at the same rigor or greater than the federal rules.

Regulations from both USDA and FDA include standards that address production and processing. For instance, USDA is currently considering allowing an increase in the speed of poultry processing lines from 140 to 175 birds per minute, if establishments follow specific criteria.

Other federal agencies also have a voice in rule setting. The Department of Commerce administers a voluntary inspection program for fresh seafood, and about half of the states in the U.S. require inspection of fish. USDA, though, has jurisdiction over farm-raised catfish, and FDA oversees seafood processing facilities. It is sometimes very confusing for consumers to know which agency is responsible for which foods! For example, while one would think that USDA would oversee fresh shell eggs and FDA would oversee processed egg products, it is actually the other way around.

At the service links of the food chain, the USDA Food and Nutrition Services Agency has oversight for Child Nutrition Programs (National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs), which are required to have a food safety plan based on HACCP principles at each site. Interestingly, schools are the only retail sector required to have such a plan, although several major restaurant chains have implemented HACCP plans as a way of monitoring and documenting the safe flow of food through their foodservices. The FDA and Department of Health and Human Services prepares the Model Food Code, which serves as the foundation for inspection requirements for retail foodservices in states and local jurisdictions.

The Model Food Code, which was updated in 2017, is updated every two years with input from the scientific community, industry representatives, and health inspectors. The FDA releases a summary of updates for each new Code and posts relevant resources on their web site. One helpful resource is a link to each state’s set of requirements for licensed foodservices. Some states and jurisdictions may use older versions of the Food Code whereas others stay current with new releases.

The Food Code requires that approved suppliers be used, and that packaging protects the integrity of the food. In today’s world, there is regulatory oversight for most foods. The exceptions are whole, fresh or unprocessed fruits and vegetables purchased directly from a small scale grower, or other non-temperature controlled for safety foods purchased direct from a preparer, such as specialty cakes. Small-scale food entrepreneurs produce what are called Cottage Foods. Each state has requirements regarding the sale of these foods; it will also depend on characteristics of the foods involved. The Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO) has published a best practice guide for these types of food businesses.

If there is no federal or state level oversight for food products, then it is up to the buyer for the foodservice to exercise due diligence to ensure the product is safely produced and transported to the operation. It is usually best to ask potential vendors about food safety assurances to be sure there is documentation that good agricultural practices, good manufacturing practices, and good handling practices have been followed prior to acceptance by the foodservice. Think of GAPs, GMPs, and GHPs!

Each state has an agency that provides oversight for specific commodities of food, and multiple agencies may have this responsibility. For instance, in Iowa, the Department of Inspection and Appeals oversees licensing of fresh shell egg producers through an FDA contract, but the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship oversees meat and dairy.

For food processors of products with ingredients under the oversight of various agencies (at federal or state level), it can get confusing. For instance, a maker of frozen pizza that distributes nationally must comply with regulations from both USDA and FDA.

We weren’t around in the early days of food regulation development, but we guess that as the need for new rules emerged, sub-groups within agencies at federal and state levels were created, thus leading to the regulatory maze that exists today. While many would argue there is sufficient legislation to ensure the safety of food, outbreaks continued. Thus, the Food Safety Modernization Act, which addressed some of the missing pieces such as controls for imported foods and during transit, was passed. In the next blog, we will cover this legislation, known as FSMA.


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