Because we decided long ago in the Constitution that states are allowed to make their own laws, we have varying rules and regulations in different jurisdictions for food safety. And each state does things a little differently. For example, in Massachusetts, each city or town has its own board of health, which enforces the laws for retail, food service and other establishments. Other states, such as Rhode Island have a single state agency that enforces the same laws across all cities and towns. And then there are other states which have a state department of agriculture that are in charge of food safety.
Contrary to popular belief, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not inspect restaurants or retail stores. These types of establishments are typically licensed and inspected by the aforementioned state or local inspection agency. However, a good guideline for state and local agencies is the FDA Model Food Code. The FDA updates the Food Code every four years. The goal is to standardize inspections across all agencies. Many jurisdictions have adopted the Food Code in its entirety, selected certain sections or written their own regulations, which incorporate different editions of the Food Code.
Generally, food safety principles are agreed upon and you will find similar regulations across the board. Some of the things that come to mind are things like, keep cold food cold and hot food hot, separate raw and ready-to-eat, check temperatures with a calibrated thermometer, employees must wash hands when appropriate, etc. I suspect the varying laws of different states are shaped in part by what products are produced in the respective states. However, it can be confusing for business owners, consumers (and even regulators) when trying to figure out the laws. The dizzying array of restaurant inspection grades can make it even more confusing for consumers to decide if a place is in compliance.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) aims to do a better job of unifying all jurisdictions into a National Integrated Food Safety System. A recent article published here in Food Safety Magazine goes through the history of where our food safety system started, what has been done so far and where it’s headed in the future. As we continue to hear of outbreaks and recalls on a daily basis, it’s important to remember that we have come a long way in making our food supply safer. There is a lot more to be done. In order to accomplish the goal of making food safer, it is going to take all levels of government and industry working together.
According to an article by Beth Kowitt on Fortune.com, one of the reasons that food keeps making us sick is because of the fragmented regulatory approach at the federal level. The best example of this, as Kowitt describes in the article is that the FDA regulates cheese pizza but if it has pepperoni on it, USDA regulates it. There are countless other examples of the jigsaw puzzle that is our food regulatory system.
FDA has historically regulated all seafood products, but recently, the regulation of catfish was transferred to the USDA. This doesn’t have much to do with food safety but because the US produces a lot of catfish, domestic farmers lobbied to have more control over the commodity through the USDA. So now you have an agency with expertise in meat, poultry and egg products overseeing the safety of a fishery product.
There is no easy answer to fix this as states and localities want to maintain their own laws and regulations as provided by the Constitution. Others are naturally reluctant to change because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”. The best we can do at this point is to follow best practices to prevent contamination. Growers and manufacturers need to design their systems with prevention in mind. Consumers need to be educated and also follow good practices when preparing food for themselves. I think by working together, being educated and taking a proactive approach we can strengthen our food safety system and hopefully eliminate or reduce the occurrence of foodborne illness.
Thomas is a food safety inspector, writer and food science aficionado who holds a BS in Food Science from Kansas State University. He started in the trenches as a QA Technician. He has written for Science Meets Food, Chews-Worthy and other food-related publications. You can follow him on twitter @mmbagelz.