U.S. Food Supply Is World’s Safest

Posted April 21, 2004 at 10:15am

Americans enjoy the safest, most abundant, diverse and affordable food supply in the world. This is due in part to efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as other agencies of the federal government including the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, to follow a scientific approach in administering their respective food safety programs. This approach has resulted in tangible public health benefits for consumers, as seen by the 16 percent decline in foodborne illness over the past six years. Despite this fact, however, we must never be content to rest on our laurels.

Our system of food inspection dates back to 1907, when Congress first enacted what have become known as the pure food laws.

The Food Safety Inspection Service within the USDA is responsible for ensuring the safety, wholesomeness and correct labeling and packaging of meat, poultry and egg products. FSIS operates under the authority of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act and the Egg Products Inspection Act. Other food products come under the authority of the FDA, while the role of the EPA is to set tolerances for pesticides used in food production.

FSIS sets standards for food safety and inspects and regulates all raw and processed meat and poultry products, and egg products sold in interstate and foreign commerce, including imported products. In the fiscal 2004 Appropriations bill, FSIS has received nearly $890 million in appropriations and existing fee collections to carry out their duties. The FDA, which sets food safety standards under the authority of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, received more than $500 million for activities within the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and the Center for Veterinary Medicine. The president’s fiscal ’05 budget request attests to the high priority his administration places on food safety and consumer protection programs and will continue to ensure that American consumers enjoy the safest food supply in the world.

More than 7,500 FSIS inspectors carry out inspections in more than 6,000 privately owned meat, poultry, egg product and other slaughtering or processing plants in the United States. FSIS inspectors examine animals before and after slaughter, preventing diseased animals from entering the food supply and examining carcasses for food safety and other consumer protection defects that can affect food safety and quality. Likewise, all processed products are subject to mandatory continuous inspection by FSIS inspectors.

Imported meat and poultry products are also subject to FSIS scrutiny. The agency reviews and monitors foreign inspection systems to ensure they are equivalent to the U.S. inspection system before those countries are allowed to export to the United States. When the products reach the United States, they are reinspected at 120 active import locations by import inspection personnel.

In July 1996, after more than a decade of consideration, the USDA finalized a rule that would, for the first time, allow for a science and risk-based inspection system to be instituted. Similar regulations have been promulgated by the FDA dealing with seafood and fruit juice, as well as a voluntary pilot project for Grade A milk. This new regulatory system known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points operates under the philosophy that you cannot test safety into a product. Instead, you must approach food processing from the standpoint of understanding and appreciating risk, and then intervening at the critical points where risks are identified.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributes recent reductions in the incidence of foodborne illness to the implementation of the HACCP system in the United States.

Over the past three years, the FSIS has been implementing a five-point strategy to further reduce the incidences of foodborne illness using HACCP as the foundation. This strategy includes: improved management of inspectors, application of science in crafting regulations, better coordination with other agencies, an aggressive education campaign for food handlers, and protection of the food supply against terrorist attack.

USDA has demonstrated an ability and willingness to work in an evolutionary manner to adapt to new technologies and processes in food safety. There will be a need to continue and even accelerate that interest in innovation as new scientific advances and food safety challenges arise. New risks like bioterrorism and BSE call for innovative approaches at USDA, but as new steps are contemplated there must be sound science. Adherence to the strongest proven science possible in food safety regulation is the only way we can continue to assure the consumer the safest, most abundant, diverse and affordable food supply in the world.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) is chairman of the Agriculture Committee.