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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Federal Food Safety System: A Primer

Renée Johnson
Specialist in Agricultural Policy

Numerous federal, state, and local agencies share responsibilities for regulating the safety of the U.S. food supply. Federal responsibility for food safety rests primarily with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). FDA, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for ensuring the safety of all domestic and imported food products (except for most meats and poultry). FDA also has oversight of all seafood, fish, and shellfish products. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) regulates most meat and poultry and some egg products. State and local food safety authorities collaborate with federal agencies for inspection and other food safety functions, and they regulate retail food establishments.

The combined efforts of the food industry and government regulatory agencies often are credited with making the U.S. food supply among the safest in the world. However, critics view this system as lacking the organization, regulatory tools, and resources to adequately combat foodborne illness—as evidenced by a series of widely publicized food safety problems, including concerns about adulterated food and food ingredient imports, and illnesses linked to various types of fresh produce, to peanut products, and to some meat and poultry products. Some critics also note that the organizational complexity of the U.S. food safety system as well as trends in U.S. food markets—for example, increasing imports as a share of U.S. food consumptions, increasing consumption of fresh often unprocessed foods—pose ongoing challenges to ensuring food safety.

The 111
th Congress passed comprehensive food safety legislation in December 2010 (FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, P.L. 111-353). Although numerous agencies share responsibility for regulating food safety, this newly enacted legislation focused on foods regulated by FDA and amended FDA’s existing structure and authorities, in particular the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA; 21 U.S.C. §§ 301 et seq.). This newly enacted law is the largest expansion of FDA’s food safety authorities since the 1930s; it does not directly address meat and poultry products under the jurisdiction of USDA. The 112th Congress will likely provide oversight and scrutiny over how the law is implemented, including FDA’s coordination with other federal agencies such as USDA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

In addition, some in Congress have long claimed that once FDA’s food safety laws were amended and updated, it would be expected that Congress would next turn to amending laws and regulations governing USDA’s meat and poultry products. Food safety incidents and concerns regarding USDA-regulated meat and poultry products are similarly well-documented. A series of bills were introduced and debated in the previous few Congresses. These bills may be reintroduced and debated in the 112
th Congress.

Date of Report: January 11, 2011
Number of Pages: 14
Order Number: RS22600
Price: $29.95

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