Back in the stone age, people were more worried about being harmed by their food while it was still alive than after it was on their plate. They hunted and foraged on a daily basis, ate what they found, and avoided eating things that were known to make people sick. Living in small groups, virtually all members of the community participated in daily food procurement and preparation—everyone knew exactly where their food came from and how it was prepared.
Today, in the United States, despite all of our modern knowledge and food safety regulations at the federal, state, and local levels, 48 million people get sick from the food they eat every year, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.
With the advent of agriculture came the ability to produce more food than was immediately needed, and that meant surplus food had to be stored somewhere—an opportunity for infestation and spoilage. Agriculture also made it possible for human groups to quit roaming around the countryside and settle down, which resulted in an increase in population density. Mix in animal domestication, and it is easy to see how food safety concerns became a challenge for early human populations.
The first food safety policies were not governmental edicts, but religious proscriptions and food customs. Religious laws, taboos, and cultural traditions emphasized the importance of cleanliness and purity and prohibited foods that we know today were prone to carrying disease-producing organisms. For most common folk, food storage and preparation customs, like salting, smoking, drying, curing, using spices, and fermentation, provided some protection from foodborne pathogens.
When the Industrial Revolution drove people from the countryside into crowded cities, most folks had to purchase food that was imported from farther and farther away. The journey of food from the field to the fork now included many new opportunities for spoilage, infestation with bugs and animal droppings, and adulteration with chemicals and dyes.
Federal interest in food safety from a health perspective was sparked by the pure food movement of the late 19th century. Alarmed by the many food additives being used in an increasingly industrialized food system, a grassroots coalition started what has been described as a “crusade” for food purity. A federal food purity bill was introduced in Congress in 1879, but it was defeated.In the early 20th century, the federal government conducted the infamous “poison squad” experiments, where healthy volunteers were fed commonly used food additives (like borax and benzoic acid) to see if it made them sick (it did). Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a muckraking novel that exposed conditions in the meat packing industry, and pressure grew to pass federal food safety legislation. Finally in 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which gave the federal government the authority to regulate the food industry.
Many changes and refinements were made to these federal laws throughout the 20th century, and today our food safety system is a mysterious maze of agencies at various levels and departments of federal, state, and local government that play different and sometimes overlapping roles to ensure the safety of our food supply. Most recently, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 shifted the focus of the federal food safety system from detecting and responding to contamination to ensuring the implementation of preventative measures.
The federal system has been described as “fragmented” and over the years, calls for re-structuring have been made by numerous organizations—to no avail. It is very difficult for producers to fully understand all of the ins and outs, the rules and exceptions that are currently in place, let alone everyday consumers. Even professionals who work within the system were unable to speak with me about how their responsibilities articulate with other parts of the system, even within their own agency!
Generally, the federal government is responsible for ensuring that food that is imported or marketed across state lines is safe, nutritious, and wholesome. Food produced and marketed within state borders is regulated by state Departments of Agriculture and local health departments. Within the federal government, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has several agencies that each have different food safety responsibilities. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe and correctly labeled and packaged. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) works at the farm level to keep agriculture free from pests and diseases. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) creates quality standards for grading meat, chicken, dairy, eggs, and more than 312 fruit, vegetable and specialty products, and offers voluntary independent audits of produce suppliers. They also set standards for organic foods and certify farms as part of the National Organic Program.Seem complicated? That’s because it is. When I started digging deeper, I realized that folks who are familiar with FSIS have no idea what APHIS does, and neither of these agencies have a good handle on the AMS, and yet all three of these agencies are within the USDA. And the USDA knows nothing about the FDA’s programs. So when talking to “experts” one needs to not take their word for it.
Moving on. The FDA sets standards for the production of most fruits and vegetables, grain and dairy products, bottled water, seafood, wild game, and eggs in the shell, as well as dietary supplements; they also conduct periodic inspections of farms and food production and warehouse facilities. The FDA has the authority to oversee food labeling, ensuring that weights and measures as well as ingredients are accurately reported, and sets standards for the display of nutritional information.
With regard to food imports, both the FDA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have food inspection responsibilities at the border. Federal funding for inspection of imported foods is woefully inadequate. For example, while 17 percent of the food we eat is imported, the FDA has the resources to inspect less than 2 percent of it. When contaminated food slips by the required inspections and people start to get sick, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks and responds to outbreaks of foodborne illness.
Got that? Now here’s more: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates pesticides and other chemicals and substances in food, and sets standards for clean drinking water. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) oversees the integrity of food advertising. Other federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and the Department of Transportation also perform some food safety functions.
But wait! There’s more. States and tribes are responsible for the safety of foods that are produced and sold within their boundaries. The State Department of Agriculture conducts inspections and certifies agricultural operations for these foods. The federal government may also contract with the Arizona Department of Agriculture to conduct the federally required inspections. Arizona regulations stipulate that agricultural operations are required to adhere to only one set of regulations, so no operations are inspected by both federal and state authorities.
Budgetary constraints limit the number of inspections the Arizona Department of Agriculture can conduct and priority is given to large-scale producers. Small producers may request a federal inspection if the state is unable to provide one. Local growers can request a federal inspection. They might want to be inspected if customers, such as grocery stores or restaurants, require it, but there are no laws that require grocery stores or restaurants to sell only foods that have been inspected. Local manufacturers are required to follow sanitary rules—which brings us to the local level.
At the local level, tribal and county public health agencies oversee sanitation in retail “food establishments”—grocery stores, restaurants, and other places where food is offered to the public. When we eat at a restaurant, grab a snack from a food truck, or graze at the food booths at the Fourth Avenue Street Fair, we give little thought to how or where the food was prepared or whether it will make us violently ill by some infectious pathogen. This luxury is brought to us by the Food Code, which includes sanitation rules that are developed at the FDA, adopted and amended by the state, further adopted and amended by the county government, and enforced by the local health department through licensing and inspection of food preparation techniques and facilities. Everything from the equipment and utensils used to specifications of the water, plumbing, and sewage systems is regulated by the Food Code and inspected by the local health department.
The Food Code does not apply to whole, unprepared fruit, vegetables, and eggs, produced and distributed locally on a small scale. These products are not inspected by any governmental agency unless the grower requests and pays for an inspection. But these products are not likely to be harmful because small-scale growers have a personal relationship with their customers and in a small-scale operation, safety and sanitary issues are less likely and easier to spot. Once locally produced foods are prepared in any way—made into salsa or sauces, or used in recipes—the Food Code kicks in. The local health department will require producers to be trained and their kitchen and preparation methods must meet Food Code standards.
Locally produced food has fewer opportunities to become contaminated or spoil on its journey from farm to fork than do products that are commercially grown, packaged, and transported over long distances.
The final layer of food safety policy takes place in your kitchen, and like our early ancestors, is governed by custom. The difference is that today’s customs are informed by science, not Scripture. Do you always wash food, counters, cooking tools, and your hands before you prepare a meal? Do you keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs away from other foods and use a special cutting board for raw foods only? Do you always refrigerate or freeze foods within two hours of cooking it? The policies we set for our own households go a long way to preventing foodborne illnesses.
So how do you know if the food you are eating is safe from pathogens, contaminants, and other forms of adulteration? Even with all the oversight at the federal, state, and local levels, foodborne illness is relatively common in the United States, the chances are one in six that you will get sick from the food you eat in the coming year. While we have an elaborate food safety system, it is fragmented and poorly funded, and only a portion of our food is ever inspected at all. What’s more, the long trajectory from farm to fork provides many opportunities for spoilage and adulteration.
One way to reduce your chances of getting sick from your food is to revert to the practices of our ancestors in the Stone Age. I don’t mean adopting the cave man diet that is currently in vogue. I mean eating food that is fresh and produced locally—grow it yourself or get your food from someone you trust. Locally produced food has fewer opportunities to become contaminated or spoil on its journey from farm to fork than do products that are commercially grown, packaged, and transported over long distances. If a problem does occur, it impacts a small number of people and is easy to track.
Home food preparation is the final frontier of food safety policy—careful food preparation techniques go a long way to protecting you and your family from foodborne diseases. And watch out for those deviled eggs that have been sitting in the sun at your church picnic. ✜
For information about specific food safety practices, recalls and alerts, and other food safety topics, go to FoodSafety.gov or CDC.gov/FoodSafety. The FDA offers an overview of requirements for a food business at FDA.gov.
Merrill Eisenberg is an applied anthropologist who retired from the University of Arizona Zuckerman College of Public Health. Her interest in food policy comes from her commitment to community empowerment and participation in policy development.