Government Agencies, U.S. (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
GOVERNMENT AGENCIES, U.S. Several departments and agencies of the United States government have responsibility for various aspects of food production, marketing, regulation, safety, and consumer protection. Government agencies serve a multiplicity of purposes, but the net effect of U.S. government policy is to provide an abundance of food at relatively low cost.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has prime responsibility for encouraging agriculture and food production, which it does through a host of programs aimed at the farm community. It administers a program of price supports for major commodities, such as corn, wheat, rice and soybeans, which makes payments to farmers if the market prices fall below target levels. The program is viewed as a "safety net" for farmers and as a boon to consumers since it calls forth abundant supplies of basic commodities. It has the potential of costing the government billions of dollars per year, the actual amount depending on market prices. The existence of such enormous subsidies is often an issue with the United States's international trading partners, despite the fact that many of them also subsidize their farmers.
Prices of other goods, such as milk, are supported through federally enforced marketing orders that set minimum prices paid to farmers. Programs for specific crops of fruits, vegetables, and nuts are intended to stabilize supplies and market prices. Some crops, from almonds to avocados, and some animal products, such as beef, pork, and milk, have programs supported by producers and enforced by the government to raise money for advertising and marketing.
Food safety is a major concern of several agencies, including the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). FSIS provides mandatory, carcass-by-carcass inspection of slaughtered livestock and poultry to ensure that meat and poultry products are wholesome and not adulterated. At the turn of the twenty-first century, more than seven thousand FSIS inspectors work in meat and poultry plants across the country; some states have equivalent, federally recognized programs in which the inspectors are employed by the state. FSIS also monitors processing plants for cleanliness and the avoidance of known hazards (such as foreign matter in meat and poultry). The agency also oversees labeling; no statements or claims can be made on meat and poultry packaging that are not first approved by FSIS.
The Agricultural Marketing Service offers a voluntary but widely used grading program for meat and poultry, fruits and vegetables (both fresh and processed), milk and dairy products, and eggs. Only products with the top grade in each category are normally sold at retail. Producers pay for the grading inspections.
Food products other than meat and poultry are generally the responsibility of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), which sets standards for products other than meat and poultry. Because, as of 2001, CFSAN employs fewer than eight hundred inspectors to monitor more than fifty thousand processing plants, it relies mainly on sampling and oversight of quality assurance systems to ensure product safety.
The federal agency with primary responsibility for seafood is the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Department of Commerce. NMFS offers a voluntary seafood inspection program to the industry that allows products to carry the mark "Processed Under Federal Inspection" and/or a seal "U.S. Grade A." NMFS estimates that about 17 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is certified under the auspices of the seafood inspection program.
FDA also regulates the labeling of food packages according to the name of the product, its ingredients, and nutritional value, among other information. It regulates the meaning of label terms such as "light" or "low-fat." Data developed or reviewed by the FDA and USDA provide the basis for the Nutrition Facts labels required on packaged food.
The Environmental Protection Agency sets tolerances for pesticide residues in or on food products or in animal feeds. These tolerance levels, which are set at very low levels, are enforced by CFSAN and FSIS through random sampling of food products and feed.
As a major player in the world food trade, the United States participates in Codex Alimentarius, the international body that fosters trade by creating widely recognized standards. The U.S. office of Codex is housed at the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, and officials from FSIS, FDA, and EPA coordinate Codex activities for the U.S. government.
USDA's Food and Nutrition Service administers food assistance, programs intended to help the economically disadvantaged get more to eat and to understand better the importance of proper nutrition. The food stamp program is one of the nation's largest welfare programs, providing benefits to needy people to increase their food purchasing power. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC, provides nutritious food supplements and nutrition counseling to pregnant women and to the mothers of infants and children up to five years of age. Low-income schoolchildren are provided with free or low-cost breakfast and lunch, and the milk program provides milk to children in schools and child-care institutions that do not have federally supported meal programs.
USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion works with the Department of Health and Human Services to promote the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Food Guide Pyramid, which provides general advice on how much people should eat from the various food groups to achieve nutritional balance.
The Federal Trade Commission has the power to take action against false and misleading advertising of food as well as other products through an administrative action or by seeking a court injunction. It can also investigate mislabeled products not covered by other federal laws, such as milk jugs not filled as stated on the label.
Foods contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms or toxins pose a significant risk of illness and death in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) investigates major outbreaks of food-borne illness and collects data on outbreaks from local and state health departments.
Foods imported into the United States are legally required to meet the same standards as those produced in the United States. As with domestic products, imports other than meat and poultry are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which can conduct product sampling to ensure that the foods meet health, safety, and labeling standards. Meat and poultry is regulated by the FSIS, which inspects processing plants in other countries to determine if they meet U.S. requirements. FSIS also determines whether the foreign country's inspection system is equivalent to that of the United States. Countries meeting those requirements can export food products to the United States, subject to quotas, tariffs, and other restrictions, and subject to inspection by U.S. officials upon arrival in the country.
Agents of the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Customs Service enforce regulations on food items carried by travelers to the United States. Travelers are prohibited from bringing in fresh, dried, and canned meats and meat products from most foreign countries. Some fruits, vegetables, and plants may be brought into the United States without advance permission, but they must be declared, inspected, and found free of pests.
The United States is a major donor to international relief efforts. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) operates the Food for Peace (FFP) program under Public Law 480. The agency donates commodities such as wheat, corn, rice, and soybean meal to private voluntary organizations, cooperatives, and international organizations, such as the United Nations World Food Program.
The Special Trade Representative (USTR) negotiates food trade agreements (along with non-food agreements) with foreign countries and, in so doing, relies on the expertise and information of the USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS). FAS also provides information on trade opportunities to U.S. exporters.
The U.S. government regulates food at virtually every stage of production, processing, and marketing. Federal programs in place since the 1930s encourage the production of food and fiber. Consumer issues, food safety most prominent among them, have been an important topic of federal regulation since the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 and have become even more important in recent years with the rise of consumer consciousness.
See also Codex Alimentarius; Commodity Price Supports; FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization); Food Safety; Food Stamps; Food Trade Associations; Government Agencies; Inspections; International Agencies; Labeling, Food; Toxins, Unnatural, and Food Safety; WIC (Women, Infants, and Children's) Program.
Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. Ensuring Safe Food: From Production to Consumption. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1998.
The United States Government Manual. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2000.
Richard L. Lobb