U.S. citizens, on average, consume more food than any other nation. The U.S. population of nearly 319 million people consumes nearly 2,700 calories each day. On an annual basis, Americans will eat nearly 2,000 pounds of food, the weight equivalent of a ton. All 2,000 pounds of food must be inspected to ensure that it is safe to eat prior to reaching consumers.

FDA Washington
Image courtesy USFDA | Flickr

To put the considerable task of ensuring food safety in perspective, consider the variety and volume of food that must be examined. According to food consumption data published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American annually consumes approximately 630 pounds of dairy products, 185 pounds of meat and poultry, 197 pounds of wheat and grain, 415 pounds of vegetables, 273 pounds of fruit, 141 pounds of sweetener, and 85 pounds of fats.

The processes that foodstuffs undergo prior to consumption are lengthy. The food must be produced, distributed, processed, and, of course, inspected. Food contamination, which often results in foodborne illness, can occur at any stage of the supply chain. Food inspectors have a responsibility to not only inspect food, but to approve it for consumption.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates about 80% of the nation’s food supply, including seafood, dairy, and produce. In other words, the agency regulates, inspects, and approves all foods that are not under the jurisdiction of the USDA.

The FDA leverages a workforce of over 900 investigators and 450 analysts to inspect, collect, and analyze product samples for approval. The FDA also performs a variety of import and export duties, inspecting foreign goods and approving foodstuffs for entry into and shipment outside of the United States. Goods that are not deemed suitable according to regulations are denied import or export privileges.

beefIn addition to overseeing food safety, the FDA conducts various other operations. The agency also serves as the United States regulatory body for veterinary drugs and food, medical devices, biological products, cosmetics, tobacco, and products that emit radiation. The FDA also regulates dietary supplements, food additives, infant formulas, and bottled water.

The FDA derives its regulatory authority through various legislative statutes enacted by the United States Congress. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the “Act”) of 1938 and associated amendments grant the FDA a wide scope of regulatory authority. The act defines food, food additives, and related topics. In addition, the act outlines both civil and criminal penalties for violations of its statutes.

Chapter four of the act is particularly important, as it distinguishes between the modification of food (additives) and the natural presence of substances. Added substances to food are held to stricter regulatory oversight and must not pose any threat to the safety and well-being of a person’s health. Naturally present substances must also meet regulations of a less rigorous nature. Specifically, natural substances must be at a level that “does not ordinarily render it injurious to health.”

In addition to the inspection and approval of various foodstuffs, the FDA regulates the food and food ingredients offered for sale in interstate commerce. Businesses that offer food that is not under the jurisdiction of the USDA are subject to regulatory oversight by the FDA. Food facilities in this category are required to register and are subject to sanitary inspections.

Food safety governance capacities of the FDA include the following: setting and enforcing reasonable standards of food quality; defining unsafe food substances; defining and enforcing proper labeling and branding of food; regulating dietary supplements and ingredients; and defining acceptable levels of substances, including fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugar.

The USDA is the government agency responsible for safeguarding the public’s food supply of egg, meat, and poultry products. The department, which is comprised of 29 agencies and offices, as well as nearly 100,000 employees, operates in over 4,500 locations.

Among the USDA’s responsibilities are “(ensuring) that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, properly labeled, and packaged.” In order to fulfill the monumental responsibility of food safety, the USDA established the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in 1977.

In addition to inspecting commercial foodstuffs, FSIS also ensures the safe operation of public food-based establishments and conducts related investigations. Currently, there are over 7,800 inspection employees in approximately 6,200 slaughters, food processing plants, and import establishments.

The regulatory capacity of FSIS, which is derived from legislation passed by Congress, includes: inspection and examination of animals prior to slaughter, enforcement of humane methods of slaughter, inspection and examination of animal products postmortem, enforcement of proper labeling and containerization of meat products, inspection and enforcement of sanitization standards at commercial centers, approval of products for export and import purposes, and inspection and enforcement of sanitization standards at public dining facilities

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