How Food Safety Organizations Work

The USDA regulates meat, poultry and eggs while the FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of the rest of our food supply.
© Martínez Banús

When it comes to monitoring food safety, the enforcers range from huge organizations like the World Health Organization, which sets standards for preventing food-borne diseases across the globe, to your local health inspector, who makes sure a fly doesn't end up in your soup.

In between those two organizations are the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA regulates meat, poultry and eggs while the FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of the rest of our food supply.


The FDA, one of the oldest consumer protection agencies in the U.S., has 9,000 employees in its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition who monitor the $417 billion worth of food that comes from our country's orchards, farms, lakes and oceans each year. They also regulate the $49 billion worth of seafood, produce and other delicacies imported annually from other countries [source: FDA].

The agency has approximately 1,100 inspectors based in 157 cities across the U.S. who visit more than 15,000 factories a year to make sure food processors are following public health laws and labeling products accurately. They collect samples that are examined by FDA scientists to determine whether the food contains contaminants, like unhealthy levels of pesticides or bacteria [source: FDA]. When a food processor is found in violation of public health laws, the FDA closely monitors the factory to make sure it takes corrective action. In extreme cases, the FDA issues recalls. In January 2009, for example, the FDA issued a warning advising Americans not to eat any cakes, cookies or other products containing peanut butter after a deadly outbreak of salmonella at one of the Peanut Corporation of America's factories in Georgia [source: MSNBC].

Read on to learn about the bad things that can end up in your food.


Food Safety Issues

Every year, 76 million Americans develop food poisoning -- stomachaches, diarrhea, fever, dehydration and nausea from eating or drinking something that contains bacteria, parasites or viruses [source: MedlinePlus].

In most cases, it feels like a bad case of the flu and the best remedy is to get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. But for infants and senior citizens with weaker immune systems, hospitalization may be necessary since the infection can spread and even cause death.


The most common food-borne illnesses arise from bacteria like salmonella, shigella and Escherichia coli (E. coli). Raw foods such as uncooked meat, poultry and eggs are the most common source of food-borne illnesses because they aren't sterile [source: National Digestive Diseases Information Clearing House].

Produce such as spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts and melons also can become contaminated with these bacteria during the growing, harvesting, processing, storing or shipping processes.

And, of course, food can become contaminated during preparation. The most common type of contamination from handled foods is calcivirus, also called the Norwalk-like virus, which is typically caused by bacteria on knives, cutting boards and hands. That's why restaurant workers are instructed to wash their hands continuously, particularly after using the restroom [source: National Digestive Diseases Information Clearing House].

Food left out for more than two hours can become contaminated, as bacteria multiply quickly at room temperature. Refrigeration and freezing slows that process.

Despite all the rules and regulations that govern food handling, food contamination is very common, even in the most developed countries. That's why it's always a good idea to err on the side of caution when something doesn't smell or taste right.

Read on to find out how to work with food safety organizations.


Working With Food Safety Organizations

To avoid fines, shut downs, recalls and outbreaks that lead to bad press and consumers swearing off certain foods forever, it's important that food and agricultural companies work closely with food safety and regulatory groups.

When fighting pesky bacteria, education and outreach are key. The World Organization for Animal Health, for example, distributes a free guidebook of good farming practices that lists a host of ways those who raise livestock can prevent the spread of disease [source: World Organization for Animal Health].


The guidelines include quarantining newly arrived and sick animals, making sure grazing areas are far from industrial plants, avoiding overcrowding, regularly disposing of animal feces and keeping the barn houses ventilated and clean.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations puts out a guide on good agricultural practices that includes applying fertilizers in the proper doses to avoid run-off, maintaining the soil through crop rotation and grazing, and limiting water use to only what is necessary [source: FAO]. The U.S. Department of Agriculture operates an audit and certification program to verify that farms use good agricultural practices like those recommended by the FAO.

In addition to routine inspections, the FDA has been implementing a new food safety program during the past 15 years called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP). The new program aims to prevent food-borne illnesses by monitoring food processing at all stages of preparation rather than spot checking factories and sampling food after it's been produced [source: FDA].

The system -- already mandatory in the production of juice, seafood, meat and poultry -- was instated in response to a spike of new food pathogens in the 1970s and 1980s, increasing public concern about contamination, growth in the volumes and types of food U.S. farmers were producing and the rise of imports [source: FDA].

Following the guidelines and procedures recommended (and in many cases mandated) by these organizations can save food processors from potential disasters, and reduce the risk to their consumers.

For more on food safety organizations, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • FDA. "Fighting Foodborne Illness." (Accessed 05/11/09)
  • FDA. "HACCP: A State-of-the-Art Approach to Food Safety." (Accessed 05/11/09).
  • FDA. "Keeping the Nation's Food Supply Safe." (Accessed 05/12/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Food Poisoning." (Accessed 05/11/09).
  • Medline Plus. "Food Contamination and Poisoning." (Accessed 05/12/09).
  • MSNBC. "More Peanut Butter Products Recalled." (Accessed 05/12/09).
  • National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. "Bacteria and Foodborne Illness." (Accessed 05/12/09).
  • Navarro Pecan Company Inc. "Quality Assurance: HACCP." (Accessed 05/11/09).
  • World Organization for Animal Health. "Guide to Good Farming Practices for Animal Production Food Safety." (Accessed 05/12/2009)