Santa Clara University

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Americans might expect “the government” to regulate conditions where the food we eat is grown and produced, but the fact is that our food safety is ensured by a crowded alphabet soup of federal agencies—or a “food-safety team” as one federal food-safety website puts it, with the work by the feds complemented by state and local agencies.

At the federal level, the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) inspects meat, poultry, and egg products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for food and produce traded through interstate commerce and oversees most other food—all while approving safe cosmetics, thousands of medicines, and medical devices. FSIS also partners with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which fingerprints viruses and handles the investigation once an outbreak is detected; and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which handles clean water and regulates pesticides.

For alcohol, look to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has a role with imported food. Seafood-processing plants are inspected and certified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

That’s a big team. As SCU’s Drew Starbird notes, “Dispersion of responsibility leads to a lack of communication and inconsistency in standards.” It can lead to missed opportunities to keep food-safety problems from becoming public health problems. The solution is redefining the government’s role, says Sandra Hoffman, a food-safety researcher at the nonpartisan think tank Resources for the Future: “Agencies have to take on the role of safety system manager rather than line inspector.”

John Deever

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