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.