Food Safety Inspectors Make Public Health a Priority: Understanding USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service

By Julie Schwartz, Public Affairs Specialist, U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Safety Inspection Service

USDAWhat did you eat for dinner last night? Do you keep food safety in mind when cooking your family’s meals? Foodborne illness is a serious public health issue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates foodborne bacteria sicken about 48 million Americans (1 in 6) every year. In addition, foodborne illness hospitalizes approximately 128,000 people and causes about 3,000 deaths annually.

Behind the fight for food safety is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). FSIS ensures meat, poultry, and processed eggs products are safe, wholesome, and accurately labeled. FSIS coordinates with partner agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, and the CDC to make sure that illnesses are tracked and identified, and that action is taken to prevent foodborne illnesses from spreading further.

FSIS prides itself on keeping America’s food supply among the safest in the world. Before it reached your plate, your meal was most likely inspected by the dedicated public servants at FSIS in one of approximately 6,000 federally inspected establishments.

Inspection personnel form the core of the agency. They perform inspection activities at plants and import establishments. For example, FSIS is the largest employer of veterinarians in the United States and many of the public health veterinarians work as part of an in-plant team in establishments. They help oversee the effectiveness of farm-to-table food safety systems, and apply expertise in epidemiology, pathology, risk management, and humane slaughter.

FSIS inspection personnel provide the first line of defense against diseased and adulterated meat and poultry; these products must be inspected and then labeled with the USDA Mark of Inspection before they are sent to grocery stores or restaurants. FSIS personnel also approve the descriptive labels of meat, poultry, and egg products, such as ‘fresh’ and ‘halal,’ to ensure they are truthful, not misleading, and contain the information necessary to keep you consumers informed and protected.

100 Years of Food Safety

Safe food handling legislation and regulation did not always exist in the United States. The catalyst for food safety policy began in the early 20th century with the publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle. Sinclair’s in-depth accounts of widespread inhumane animal handling and unhygienic food preparation in the meatpacking industry fundamentally altered the nation’s relationship with large-scale food production.

Spurred by the public outrage following the book’s publication, Congress began to consider food handling and food safety as an integral component of public health. In 1906, Congress passed the first law providing for the federal inspection of meat. This act, the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, was the first in a series of laws that still uphold the food inspection framework we use today.

Since the Federal inspection program began, the meat and poultry industries have grown and changed significantly. In earlier days, inspectors relied almost exclusively on visual inspection of animals, products, and plant operations. However, refinements in animal production reduced disease and created a more homogeneous animal population. Thus, the concerns of today’s inspectors are broader and include unseen hazards such as microbiological and chemical contamination.

A Science-Based Approach

To prepare for existing and emerging food safety threats, FSIS stresses a science-based approach towards policy developments to achieve the statutory mission laid out by Congress. An example of the agency’s continued movement towards a more science-based approach to preventing foodborne illness is the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS).

Rolled out in 2014, NPIS requires that all poultry companies take scientifically based measures to prevent contamination, rather than addressing it after it occurs. For the first time, poultry facilities will be required to perform their own microbiological testing to demonstrate they are controlling for pathogens that cause illness, like Salmonella and Campylobacter. When fully implemented, poultry companies will have to meet new control requirements for these bacteria, and an estimated 5,000 additional foodborne illnesses will be prevented each year.

Resources and Public Health Outreach

The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline can personally answer food safety questions both in English and Spanish on weekdays year-round. This toll-free telephone service helps prevent foodborne illness by answering consumer questions about the safe storage, handling, and preparation of meat, poultry, and egg products. It is staffed by food safety specialists with backgrounds in home economics, nutrition, and food technology.

AskKaren is the FSIS automated system containing answers to thousands of common Hotline questions. Want to know how long you can safely keep meat in the refrigerator? Or how long to boil an egg? Just ask Karen, your guide to expert knowledge on handling and storing food safely and preventing food poisoning. Live chat is also available during specified weekday hours.

Most recently, the USDA, Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute developed the ‘FoodKeeper’ app as part of the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, a larger effort between the USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce food waste by improving product development, storage, shopping/ordering, marketing, labeling, and cooking methods.

To check out some of FSIS’s numerous education campaigns, including the traveling USDA Food Safety Discovery Zone vehicle, visit the orgabization’s website.

Public Health Agency Coordination

The work performed by local health departments and FSIS employees touches every community in the nation and its territories. FSIS appreciates all that city and county health officials do to protect the public every day.

Food safety is a coordinated effort across government agencies; local health departments are responsible for food inspections in places that impact consumers on a daily basis, such as restaurants, grocery stores, daycare facilities, hospitals, schools, and more. Like FSIS, when food products are found to be unsafe, local health departments initiate recalls— quickly getting the  word out to the public to ensure that unsafe products are not consumed, and halting the spread of foodborne illness.

Ensuring meat, poultry, and processed egg products are safe and wholesome requires many motivated, skilled, and highly trained professionals working as one team with one purpose. From the inspection of domestic product, imports, and exports, conducting risk assessments; and educating the public about the importance of food safety, USDA is there, working to build a better modern public health system that meets the evolving needs of the farm-to-table continuum.


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