N D S U Home Page  North Dakota State University
  Ag Law Text Banner

US Food System

INFORMATION find our service links to the right   Home  About this Site   AGEC Home 

QUICK LINKS For related links to this site, look below
 Reference Topics
 Related Links
 Contact Author

Best if printed in landscape.

Introduction to Food Law

Concerns about Food Safety
Overview of Key Points

US Food System
Scope of the Challenge:  Farm-to-Table

How US Law is Created

Finding US Food Safety Law Information

Overview of US Food Law
Government "Players" in US Food Law
Requirements of Food Businesses
Producer/Processor/Preparer Liability
Looking Forward/Future Issues

US Food System

A food safety problem can arise anywhere in the food system; this page overviews of the food system and illustrates the scope of the challenge.

  • Production sector – the millions of farmers and ranchers who produce agricultural commodities such as grains, fruits, vegetables, livestock, milk, eggs, and poultry. This sector also includes commercial fishermen, as well as fish farms.  Feedlots also are generally considered part of the production sector. The production sector of the food industry is sometimes referred to as "pre-harvest."
  • The processing or manufacturing sector that converts agricultural commodities into food products.  The processing may be a single step (e.g., milk to cheese) or involve multiple steps (e.g., wheat to flour,and then to dough, and finally to bread) to complete the manufacturing process.  This sector also includes the businesses involved in transporting and storing food products.  Issues relating to the safety of food packaging generally arise as part of the processing sector.
    • Note:  The description of these two sectors is not complete without mentioning the agribusinesses involved in moving agricultural commodities from producers to the first processors, such as grain elevators.  Although these firms may be considered to be part of the manufacturing sector, in terms of how they are regulated for food safety purposes, they may more closely align with the production sector.
  • Retail Outlets/Grocery Stores – selling the food product to the consumer with the general expectation that the consumer will complete the final preparation at their home.
  • Restaurants and Similar Entities that Prepare Foods – restaurants that prepare food for consumption at that location; but other entities also prepare food for consumption away from a person’s home – hospitals, universities, schools, work places, nursing homes, deli's, push carts, etc.  This category might be described as “the final preparation of food for someone else to consume.”
  • Consumers – preparing food for oneself to consume, also includes buying the food to prepare (this is based on the assumption that few of us raise our own food, but that instead we buy much of our food; this is true for even those in the food system, for example, farm families buy most of their food, few raise all the foods they consume; the dairy farmer most likely buys bread, vegetables, and fruits -- no different than the "urban cousin"); this category also includes deciding which foods to consume away from home.

The four categories listed above are based on observation that U.S. food law addresses each of these sectors of the food industry with a somewhat different strategy. It is unlikely that this outcome of "four sectors in the food industry" was be designed, but instead is the result of a century of evolving food law.


Why Concerns about Food Safety at this Time in History?

The food system has changed in the past two centuries – expanded urbanization, increased transportation, and other advances in technologies.

See section titled New conditions facilitating the emergence of pathogens by Elmi in Food safety: current situation, unaddressed issues and the emerging priorities at http://www.emro.who.int/Publications/EMHJ/1006/PDF/13%20Food%20safety.pdf

“Trends in global food production, processing, distribution and preparation present new challenges to food safety.  Food grown in one country can now be transported and consumed halfway across the world. People demand a wider variety of foods than in the past, they want foods that are not in season and they often eat out of the home. Children in schools and childcare facilities and the growing number of elderly persons in hospitals and nursing homes mean that food for many is prepared by a few and can therefore be the source of major foodborne disease outbreaks …”

Elmi also addressed increase in international trade, changes in food technology, increase in travel, and changes in lifestyles and consumer demand as impacting conditions that impact food safety concerns.

A thought for your consideration: Imagine a 160 years ago as Europeans settled in the Great Plains of North America. How many people "touched" the food that the frontier family ate? They likely raised the grain, ground it into meal, and prepared the flour into a food product. Or, they likely raised the grain that was fed to a cow or pig which was then slaughtered for its meat. Or, they shot the deer that the family then ate. In that situation, seldom was the food touched by someone outside the family. Compare that to today's food industry.

The food system has grown more complex as we have urbanized; that is, we are not producing our own commodities, but are relying on others to produce the commodity, process them into food, and often want them to be complete the final preparation (about 50% of US food is eaten away from home).  As consumers, we do not know who did what to the food we are eating.  We trust the “sellers” and we rely on society (through government and law) to impose and enforce expectations on food businesses.

Could you describe how the ongoing change in our society and our food system is leading to the ongoing changes in food law?

Who is involved in Producing a Food Product?

Numerous entities often are involved in the production of any food product. Consider again, the example of a pizza being prepared, served and eaten at a restaurant. This is an oversimplified example, but it illustrates the point that numerous people and businesses are involved in the production of our food.

The pizza includes a crust, tomato sauce, green peppers, cheese, and sausage.  Now consider the many steps, products, and people involved in providing that pizza to the table for your consumption.

  • Crust – wheat is grown, harvested, and transported; the wheat is milled to flour, packaged and transported; the flour is blended with other ingredients to make dough; the dough is handled as it is spread on the baking pan.
  • Tomato sauce – the tomato is grown, harvested, and transported; processed (with many other tomatoes) into sauce, packaged (canned?) and transported; the can is opened and the sauce is applied to the dough
  • Green peppers – the vegetable is grown, harvested, and transported; it is processed (e.g., sliced or diced), packaged, frozen, and transported; it is thawed and applied to the dough and tomato sauce
  • Cheese – milk is produced and transported; milk is processed into cheese, shredded, packaged, refrigerated, stored, transported, and stored again; it is applied to the pizza
  • Sausage – animal is raised; animal is slaughter; meat is ground and mixed with ground meat from other animals; meat is processed into sausage by adding other ingredients, shaping, cooking, and maybe slicing; it is packaged, stored, transported and stored again; finally it is applied to the pizza.
  • A mixture of spices are sprinkled on top; some of the spices are imported (perhaps the cheese and other pizza ingredients also were imported).
  • The pizza is baked and delivered to your table at the restaurant.

How many dozens of people and processes have contributed to the pizza?  Each step is a possible source of contamination; how does the system protect the integrity of all the items?

We could describe a similar process for the bread sticks, salad, soda, and milk. We could describe similar processes for a meal with a hamburger, chicken sandwich, a steak dinner, or a fish filet.

How does the system protect the integrity of all the food items?  Each step in the process is required to assure the integrity of its product and activity (including entities responsbile for the storage and transportation of the food product).


The basic sectors in the food industry are

  • Production sector that produces agricultural commodities such as grain, livestock, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Processing or manufacturing sector that converts the agricultural commodities into food products, such as grain to flour and milk to cheese; this sector also includes transportation and storage.
  • Restaurants and other entities that complete the final preparation of the food for consumption away from home.
  • Retail sector; that is, the grocery stores that sell to consumers for home preparation and consumption.
  • Consumers who 1) prepare food for consumption at home or 2) consume prepared food away from home.

As will be described in subsequent sections (on subsequent web pages), these sectors of the industry are subject to different government strategies for enhancing the safety of food by reducing the risk of unsafe food.

Next section addresses Scope of the Challenge: Farm-to-Table.


Last Updated January 21, 2010

  NDSU Home  Phone Book  Campus Map  NDSU Search  College of Agriculture

E-Mail agecinf@ndsuext.nodak.edu
Published by Agribusiness and Applied Economics
Morrill Room 217, P.O. Box 5636
North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND 58105-5636
Phone: (701) 231-7441
Fax: (701) 231-7400