The Role of Food Safety

Autumn is an annual time to reflect on the safety of our abundant and wholesome food supply.  It is also a time to reflect on various links that strengthen our ability to serve safe and nutritious food to our families and loved ones.

Food and agricultural production has made many contributions to the overall quality of life for Americans.  Here in the U.S., we boast one of the safest food supplies in the world and are fortunate that it is also affordable, abundant, delicious, nutritious and convenient. 

The responsibility for the safety of our food supply does not hinge solely on one person, group, entity or Federal agency.  Instead, it is interconnected and supported by other strong links along the food chain.  Food safety in the U.S. is a shared responsibility, and according to the IFIC Foundation’s 2012 Food & Health Survey of 1000+ American consumers, over 50% believe that all entities (government agencies, farmers / producers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers) are “doing a good job” when it comes to ensuring the safety of the food supply.  Surprisingly, 94 percent believe that the person preparing food in the home is doing “the best job.”

Today’s Food and Agriculture Producer

As consumers, we all expect safe food, and safe food starts on the farm.  Today’s farmer and agricultural producers have made great strides in efficient use of land and technology to prepare for drought, natural disasters and even changes to our climate.  As of mid-July 2012, 62 percent of farms in the U.S. were experiencing drought conditions, making this the most severe and extreme drought in at least 25 years.  Yet, it’s because of farmers’ skill and expert technologies in agricultural systems that we can still rely on safe and abundant food.  Specific agricultural systems—such as traditional breeding practices, drought resistant crops, integrated pesticide management and organic farming practices—are adopted by producers for a variety of reasons, including environmental impact and consumer demand.

The producer and farmer are just the beginning; all sectors of the food production system play an integral role in assuring the safety of our food supply.  Among other things, their responsibilities include:

  • Research and development
  • Adhering to strict government regulations
  • Instituting quality control programs
  • Education

Our Federal Food System

From the corn farmer to the poultry processor to our favorite grocer or restaurant – all are important links in our shared responsibility to ensure a safe and abundant food supply.  To maintain our status as a leader in ensuring safe food, our food production system is highly regulated by laws and guidance to assure everyone producing food fulfills their responsibility to maintain the safety levels.

Food chain producers, processors, and manufacturers are primarily responsible for assuring the safety of our food supply; the FDA and the USDA are responsible for oversight.  They work together and are interconnected with state and local partners, farmers and producers, the food industry, retailers and foodservice establishments to be able to provide oversight on the safety of food in the U.S. 

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

In the U.S., the FDA regulates approximately 80 percent of our food supply.  FDA is also responsible for protecting public health by advancing innovations to make food safer and affordable.  FDA also ensures food products are labeled correctly and truthfully to appropriately inform consumers.  In addition, FDA develops standards for food ingredients, colors and additives.  It conducts research to detect and identify potential contaminants in food – whether naturally occurring or from man-made sources such as packaging.  The Agency also inspects food processing plants, imported food products and animal food facilities.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is the most historic piece of food safety legislation passed by Congress since the enactment of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) of 1938, which gave FDA the authority to oversee the safety of food, drugs and cosmetics.  The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 is hailed as ‘historic’ because it focuses on prevention and provides FDA with tools and inspection and enforcement authority to ensure that unsafe foods are not available to the public.  In addition to tools such as increased records inspection, and the authority to deny entry, FSMA also provides FDA with mandatory recall authority.  In lieu of relying on a firm’s voluntary decision to remove suspected food from the marketplace, FDA can now order a mandatory recall of such products if there is evidence the food is adulterated, misbranded or can be a danger to public health.  FDA has also launched a new consumer search engine where news and information about the latest recalls are posted and updated regularly.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the public health arm of USDA that ensures the safety of meat, poultry and egg products.  FSIS ensures these products are properly inspected, labeled and packaged.  FSIS also monitors raw meat and poultry products for bacterial contamination, drug residues and other chemicals.  An interconnected network of other agencies and departments is also working continuously to ensure a safe and abundant food supply.

Consumers:  The Vital Link in Food Safety

Why should consumers get involved or be responsible for food safety?  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), foodborne illness strikes 1 in 6 Americans and unfortunately approximately 3,000 die annually from foodborne diseases.  Foodborne illness and related diseases can be fatal; particularly vulnerable groups are pregnant women, young children, older Americans and those with weakened immune systems.  Now is the time for all Americans to make sure we’re doing our part to ensure a safe food supply.  Producers, government, manufacturers and retailers are required by law to apply food safety standards at every point along the food chain, except one – in your home.  Although the majority of consumers agree that the person preparing food in the home is doing the “best job,” home cooks need guidelines to ensure that the food prepared is safe to eat.  They include 1) clean surfaces and utensils often and wash hands frequently; 2) separate cooked from raw products and use different cutting boards and utensils for each; 3) cook to safe internal temperatures and use a meat thermometer to make certain it’s reached the right temperature; and 4) chill foods quickly and properly.

A Shared Responsibility Indeed

September is a month to reflect on the old and harvest the new.  It offers an opportunity for all consumers to learn how producers, government and others make our food chain safer.  We need to accept our seat at the table to share the responsibility of ensuring a safe and affordable food supply.