Alphabet Soup: Food Safety Standards; USDA, FDA, HHS & Now FSMA

Alphabet soupFood Snob

I've been accused of being a food snob. I'm not denying this charge either. I'm not one to dine in a chain restaurant with a few select sandwich-shop exceptions. I'm the offspring of good cooks. My family gets excited about a great meal. And I'll admit it... I love good food.

And by "good food" I don't necessarily mean expensive food. Good food is fresh, well-prepared fare. It could come from an award-winning chef, a street vendor on a busy corner, the kitchen of a friend or family member or a local market. Later this week, I'll be writing more about my favorite places to eat in the Twin Cities as well as other places across the country.

Dangers of Our Food

We have all experienced a food-borne illness of some sort or found a fly congealed in a jello cup {I actually have} or a hair in a sealed bag of chips {once again, true story}, etc. at some point in time. The thing about the food we eat these days is that in many instances it's not locally produced from the farmer or rancher down the road. In fact, it may not even have been grown or produced in the U.S. Many of the foods we buy have traveled hundreds of miles, been processed and packaged in factories, then shipped to our local grocery stores.

While all foods sold commercially must be inspected by the United States Agricultural Department (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), contaminated foods still make it into our supermarkets and restaurants and on to our tables. Well-prepared food can still be contaminated, as has been the case with sprouts, chives, greens, etc. in recent years where the pollutant was not something that could be washed-off and made safe for eating. One of the latest, wide sweeping recalls was for contaminated eggs; often it's ground beef that's tainted, but it can be anything.

We take a risk every time we dine out; every time we buy food at the grocery store; every time we eat anything we, ourselves, did not grow or raise and butcher. In recent years, we have seen tainted vegetables, peanuts, meats, canned foods, eggs, infant formula, medicines and pet foods pulled from shelves. Millions of people are sickened each year, a hundred thousand are hospitalized and thousands killed by food-borne illnesses.

Who is Responsible for the Safety of Our Food?

In general, the USDA, or more specifically, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a part of the USDA, is responsible for the inspection of meat, poultry and egg products, and the FDA oversees all other foods. But, in actuality, the exact division of who regulates what is more complicated. For more information check out this great article regarding the tangled web of food safety regulations from Food Safety News dot com published in December.

Food Safety Modernization Act

The good news is that in late December of 2010, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was passed by the U.S. legislature and signed into law by President Obama in early January. The FSMA provides the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) with significant power to execute FDA & FSIS policies. This Act promises to focus on prevention of food-borne illnesses. The White House says the FSMA will "strengthen accountability for prevention throughout the entire food system – domestically and internationally." The FSMA will accomplish this by: requiring processors of food "to evaluate the hazards in their operations, implement and monitor effective measures to prevent contamination, and have a plan in place to take any corrective actions that are necessary"; mandating that "importers verify the safety of food from their suppliers"; and giving the FDA the power to "block foods from facilities or countries that refuse our inspection." The FSMA strives to strengthen the collaboration of all levels of food agencies by improving "training of state, local, territorial and tribal food safety officials and authorizing grants for training, conducting inspections, building capacity of labs and food safety programs, and other food safety activities."

Our existing system, shared between the USDA and FDA, has been more focused on responding to outbreaks rather than preventing such occurrences in the first place. Some agencies are able to perform more inspections than others due to amounts and sources of funding. FSMA should shift this focus and hopefully reduce the frequency of recalls and contaminations, but only time will tell.

The Scoop

In general, the food sold in the U.S. is safe to eat and well-prepared by restaurants and processors, but when such food-borne illness breakouts occur it's scary and can be very serious. To me, it always seems as if these outbreaks could have been prevented through more thorough inspections, testing and reporting. I'm optimistic that the FSMA will aid in reducing the number of food contamination incidents. Tomorrow I'll be discussing food that's most commonly associated with food-borne illnesses. Over and out...


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