Foodborne Illness:
  Who monitors our food?

In the U.S., as many as 15 different federal agencies are responsible for keeping our food safe. But the lion’s share of responsibility goes to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The USDA oversees the safety of meat, poultry and certain egg products. Its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is required to inspect all cattle, sheep, swine and other animals during slaughtering and processing. At least one federal inspector is required to be on the line during all hours a processing plant is operation.

The FDA is responsible for virtually all other foods, including milk, seafood, and fruits and vegetables. Part of the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency also ensures the safety of imported food products.

Here’s how irrational this system gets:

  • The USDA regulates chickens while the FDA regulates eggs. 
  • The USDA regulates cows while the FDA regulates milk. 
  • The USDA regulates pepperoni pizza while the FDA regulates cheese pizza. 
  • The USDA regulates catfish, while the FDA regulates tuna.

These agencies also operate in a lopsided arrangement–with the FDA, until the new food safety law, notably weaker in its enforcement powers than the USDA. Today, about 60 percent of the two agencies’ combined food safety budget goes to USDA, about 40 percent to FDA. Yet while FDA gets the smaller share, it is responsible for at least 80 percent of the U.S. food supply.

Money isn’t the only shortfall for FDA–so is staffing. Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS), an agency of the USDA, employs around 9,400 staff, of whom about 8,400 work in the 6,300 meat slaughtering and/or processing plants nationwide. By contrast, FDA food-related staff number only 2,800 FDA, of whom 1,800 are inspectors–even though FDA has oversight of more than 44,000 U.S. food manufacturers. 

The rising tide of imports may be the most daunting challenge for the FDA. In the last five years, food imports have doubled, with more than 240,000 establishments in 200 countries and territories selling products to the United States each year. Today, between 10 and 15 percent of all food consumed each year by U.S. households is imported. In some food categories, more of what we consume is imported than produced domestically–60 percent of fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood, for example, come from abroad.

Yet the FDA can only physically examine about 2 percent of imported foods. Over the last few years, hundreds have been sickened in outbreaks from imported produce, including Salmonella in Guatemalan cantaloupes and in Mexican peppers, and Hepatitis A in Mexican green onions.

The Food Safety Modernization Act directs FDA to inspect at least 600 foreign food facilities within the next year, and to double those inspections every year for the next five. But unless funding is increased, that goal will be impossible to reach, an FDA report concluded earlier this year.

FDA is also assigned to work with states to bring their inspection practices up to a common standard. But here, too, the agency is at a loss, because the recession has eroded state budgets. And state agencies have not always proven reliable in keeping food safe for consumers. The Georgia Department of Agriculture, under contract to FDA, inspected and gave a thumbs up to the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) a few months before its disastrous outbreak in 2008 and 2009, in which the company’s Salmonella-tainted peanut butter products caused nine deaths and more than 700 illnesses in 46 states.

More than 2,800 peanut-containing products produced by a variety of firms may have been made with the ingredients recalled by PCA.

With some food safety threats, the USDA and the FDA may actually be out of synch. For example, as part of its rulemaking under the new law, the FDA could name E. coli O104:H4–the organism behind the German sprouts outbreak–as an adulterant in fresh produce. “If we detect that a product is contaminated with a bacteria we think is pathogenic, then we will remove it from commerce and we will invoke that adulteration standard,” says Michael Taylor.

By contrast, the USDA, which until recently had only named E. coli O157 as an adulterant, may be powerless to keep it out of the meat supply until an outbreak has already surfaced, as it did in August 2010, when the Big Six strain E. coli O26 in ground beef set off illnesses.  Fortunately, on September 12, 2011 the USDA announced that it has extended the ban on E. coli to include the Big Six strains–but not the O104 strain. In the future, the agency  may also declare other strains of E. coli, such as O104, to be adulterants.

Unless otherwise noted, all content about foodborne illness and food safety policy is written by Madeline Drexler, Schuster Institute senior fellow.

Copyright © 2011 Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, Waltham, MA.

Last page update: September 16, 2011