CRS — The Federal Food Safety System: A Primer

December 17, 2012

The Federal Food Safety System: A Primer (PDF)

Source: Congressional Research Service (via U.S. State Department Foreign Press Center)

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 and increasing consumption of fresh, often unprocessed, foods—pose ongoing challenges to ensuring food safety.

The 111 th Congress passed comprehensive food safety legislation with the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA, P.L. 111-353). FSMA is the largest expansion of FDA’s food safety authorities since the 1930s. Although numerous agencies share responsibility for regulating food safety, FSMA focused on foods regulated by FDA and amended FDA’s existing structure and authorities, and did not directly address meat and poultry products under USDA’s jurisdiction. Beyond these changes, some in Congress continue to push for additional policy reforms to address other perceived concerns about the safety of the U.S. food supply.

After FSMA was signed into law in January 2011, concerns were voiced about whether there would be enough money to overhaul the U.S. food safety system and also whether expanded investment in this area is appropriate in the current budgetary climate. Although Congress authorized appropriations and new user fees for FDA when it enacted FSMA, it did not provide the full funding needed for FDA to perform these activities. FDA’s FY2012 budget for its foods program was $866 million, and FSIS’s FY2012 budget was $1.004 billion in appropriated funds, with some additional funding available from authorized user fees. Funding levels specific to food safety responsibilities at other federal and state agencies is not readily available.

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