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Who Inspects What? A Food Safety Scramble

Two government agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, share most of the responsibility of food safety inspection. The rules that determine which agency is responsible for which food can be complex, and sometimes the division of labor defies categorization altogether.

Take eggs, for example.  The FDA inspects shelled eggs, while the USDA is responsible for egg products, including liquid, frozen and dehydrated eggs.  The FDA regulates the feed chickens eat, but the laying facility falls under USDA jurisdiction.

If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is.  This year’s investigation into the Salmonella outbreak in Iowa eggs was complicated by the fact that the USDA was responsible for the pile of manure next to the laying facility, but the FDA was accountable for the danger of the eggs themselves. 

“Eggs–that part of the food safety inspection system is very ‘scrambled,’ ” says Dr. Richard Raymond, former Under Secretary for Food Safety for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the USDA’s enforcement arm.

Technically, the USDA is responsible for the safety of meat, poultry and egg products, while the FDA regulates all other foods, Raymond explains.

While this might sound like a simple division, Raymond says in practice it is much more complicated.  Sausage meat is inspected by FSIS, while sausage casings that enclose the meat are the FDA’s responsibility, because they have no nutritional value as meat.

Which agency has authority over a given food has consequences that extend beyond who sends the inspector, because jurisdiction establishes how often or even if the food is inspected–regularly, rarely or  perhaps even never.

FSIS conducts continuous daily inspections of foods in its domain, whereas FDA inspections have no regular schedule.  The FDA is more likely to inspect only after a tip about a possible food safety violation, so random inspections can occur up to 10 years apart or, in rare cases, not at all.

“It’s not that they don’t want to inspect more, they just don’t have the funding,” Raymond says.

This inspection imbalance means that pepperoni pizza, because it contains meat, has ingredients that will be inspected three times before the product hits the grocery store freezer: at the slaughterhouse, the packing plant and the pizza factory. A vegetarian pizza produced at the same facility, however, will probably not undergo any inspection.

Baby food presents another inconsistency.  Canned chicken is inspected by FSIS, while canned applesauce falls under the FDA’s purview. The fact that one is inspected more frequently than the other does not reflect the proportionate dangers of the two products, says Raymond.

 ”The risk of canned and bottled foods is botulism. It’s not pathogens of E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella, things like that, because the heat will destroy those pathogens,” he says.  Canned vegetables are just as likely as canned beef to make a baby sick, even though they do not require continuous daily inspection.

Raymond says he has been in soup plants where FSIS workers inspected every can of chicken noodle soup that came off the line, but the tomato soup went into the box unexamined, because it was meat-less.

While the rules don’t make sense in terms of health risks, at least there seems to be a method to the madness: meat–inspected. No meat–not regularly inspected.

Other foods, on the other hand, defy classification outright.  For example, fish are supposed to fall under FDA jurisdiction.  Catfish, however, swam across the dividing line to USDA jurisdiction under the 2008 Farm Bill.

 ”Catfish are no less safe than salmon or shrimp,” Raymond says.  Nevertheless, this everyman’s fish is now the only seafood that will receive the royal treatment of daily inspection. 

And the line zig-zags more.  Open-faced sandwiches are inspected by the USDA; closed-face, the FDA. The FDA regulates bagel dogs, while the USDA is in charge of corn dogs.

This imbalance extends to imports as well.  FSIS inspects 100 percent of all imports under its jurisdiction, and tests 5 percent of these for pathogens and residues, while the FDA does not inspect imports without cause.  This means that seafood products can enter the U.S. with no inspection whatsoever.

Still confused?  So is Raymond, who spent a large part of his tenure trying to balance the system so that seafood would undergo inspection and meat wouldn’t require triple inspections, while vegetables rarely get any scrutiny.

© Food Safety News
  • Minkpuppy

    I deal with the inspection imbalance daily in my dual jurisdiction FSIS/FDA inspected plants. I’m fairly sure the eggroll plant I visit hasn’t ever seen an FDA inspector since the new owners took over last year.
    When I was inspecting imported meats, I worked at a warehouse that brought in a lot of seafood. The only things I saw being inspected regularly were frozen shrimp destined for Wal-Mart and it was the Dept. Of Commerce doing the inspections at Wal-Mart’s request. We had an ongoing battle trying to keep their inspectors out of our FSIS inspection room due to the cross-contamination risks and our need to have that room on a moment’s notice. The commerce inspector’s ended up using the converted kitchen next to our office and their sanitation was atrocious. It was up to them to clean up their own inspection area and it didn’t get done very often or very well. One guy wasn’t even doing the inspections–he was just pencil whipping.
    I will not buy frozen shrimp at Wal-mart if I can help it because of what I saw going on there. Luckily, I live on Galveston Bay and can get fresh shrimp whenever I want.

  • Doc Raymond

    Excellent story on a difficult to explain bureaucratic snafoo.
    It is my belief that USDA/FSIS should be given authority over all animals and animal products, such as milk, eggs, cheese and all fish and seafood. FDA should be given authority over all else, including finished products made with meat products that have already undergone FSIS inspection at least twice, such as canned soups, baby food, frozen entrees, sandwiches, pizzas, flavorings, etc.
    Dual jurisdiction in plants making meat and meat-free products is ridiculous, and even more so if the products are identical, like the open- and closed-faced sandwiches Gretchen mentions in her story.

  • Jess C. Rajan, Ph.D.

    Both the USDA and DHHS have sub-agencies that have egg/food safety-related “regulatory” functions. However, at the operational level these “regulatory agencies” implement food safety laws and regulations using draft guidelines and/or inconsistent procedures. For example, these agencies enter into inter-agency agreement (IAA) and/or memorandum of understanding (MOU) undermining their food safety functions. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is one of the favorites for IAA and MOU. The details of such operational arrangements are not usually published for general information. The present USDA/FSIS 9 CFR Regulations and operational arrangements with AMS for Egg Products reflect only the “marketing” functions/interests of the USDA and not the food safety-related responsibilities of FSIS. After the processed egg products were transferred from the AMS to FSIS in the 1990s, the 7 CFR marketing regulations were simply copy/pasted into the FSIS 9 CFR — without amending the AMS organization and procedural information/requirements.
    The statement about FSIS inspecting every can of product is confusing. A Class I recall of June 17, 2010 (FSIS-RC-035-2010) was for approximately 15,000,000 pounds of canned products.
    http://www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/Recall_035_2010_Release/index.asp
    It appears that these canned products were distributed in commerce from December 2008 and the problem was “discovered” by the company in June 2010. As of December 16, 2010, FSIS has not posted any information on its website about the effectiveness (i.e. number of pounds recovered) of this Class I Recall.
    http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fsis_Recalls/Recall_Case_Archive/index.asp
    FSIS has a superior pool of inspection employees compared to the FDA. However, FSIS employees are constrained by the ineffective FSIS organizational structure and operational procedures.

  • http://www.healthyfoodcoalition.org hhamil

    Thanks for a good start on this issue. Unfortunately, you failed to address a way that the FDA has expanded its authority into an area that is clearly the USDA’s and for which the FDA is obviously ill prepared.
    The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) further blurs the line dividing USDA and FDA by ratifying the FDA’s current interpretation of its authority to issue “guidances” on the “safe production and harvesting” of leafy greens, melons, tomatoes, etc.
    This clearly exceeds its authority under the FFDCA to regulate food.
    Crops are not food; crops are only crops. The earliest a “crop” becomes “food” is after it is harvested. The FDA regulates food. The USDA regulates crops. The FDA’s authority should begin only once a crop has become “food.” Until then, the USDA should be responsible for the regulation of farming. Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) should remain under the USDA.

  • http://www.healthyfoodcoalition.org Harry Hamil

    Thanks for a good start on this issue. Unfortunately, you failed to address a way that the FDA has expanded its authority into an area that is clearly the USDA’s and for which the FDA is obviously ill prepared.
    The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) further blurs the line dividing USDA and FDA by ratifying the FDA’s current interpretation of its authority to issue “guidances” on the “safe production and harvesting” of leafy greens, melons, tomatoes, etc.
    This clearly exceeds its authority under the FFDCA to regulate food.
    Crops are not food; crops are only crops. The earliest a “crop” becomes “food” is after it is harvested. The FDA regulates food. The USDA regulates crops. The FDA’s authority should begin only once a crop has become “food.” Until then, the USDA should be responsible for the regulation of farming. Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) should remain under the USDA.