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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

Scope of the Challenge: Farm-to-Table

The challenge of assuring a safe food supply is growing more complex for numerous reasons, but primarily because the food industry is growing more complicated. Consider, for example, the number of steps (and entities) involved in our food system. How many different entities handle a food product as it progresses from the producer, through processing, shipping, and preparing, before it reaches the consumers?  Likewise, our food system is producing food products that involve more processing and commingling, e.g., more items are being brought together to form a single food product.  Also consider the large quantities in which are food is being processed, the large geographic area from which inputs are acquired, and the large geographic distribution of the finished product. These examples illustrate why food safety is a complex challenge. In recent years, it has been further complicated with the concern that someone may intentionally and maliciously disrupt our food supply (i.e., bioterrorism).

Consider the following excerpts:

"Sources of food contamination are almost as numerous and varied as the contaminants themselves. Bacteria and other infectious organisms are pervasive in the environment. Salmonella enteritidis enters eggs directly from the hen. Bacteria (occasionally pathogenic) inhabit the surfaces of fruits and vegetables in the field. Molds and their toxic byproducts can develop in grains during unusually wet or dry growing seasons, damage and stress during harvesting, or during improper storage. Seafood may become contaminated from agricultural and other runoff, as well as by sewage, microorganisms, and toxins present in marine environments. Many organisms that cause foodborne illness in humans can be part of the normal flora of the gastrointestinal tract of food-producing animals without any adverse effects to the animal. Milk, eggs, seafood, poultry, and meat from food-producing animals may become contaminated due to contaminated feed, misuse of veterinary drugs, or poor farming practices, including production and harvesting activities, or disposal of solid waste on land. Foods may become contaminated during processing due to malfunctioning or improperly sanitized equipment; misuse of cleaning materials; rodent and insect infestations; and improper storage. Foods may become contaminated in retail facilities and in the home through use of poor food handling practices."

Excerpt from Food Safety From Farm to Table:  A New Strategy for the 21st Century, February 1997.

Another consideration --

"The Secretary shall give high priority to increasing the number of inspections ... for the purpose of enabling the Secretary to inspect food offered for import ... into the United States, with the greatest priority given to inspections to detect the intentional adulteration of food." 21 U.S.C. 381(h)(1); included in Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002. 

The conclusion is that a food safety problem can result from an unsafe agricultural commodity, such as a spoiled vegetable, meat from a diseased animal, or chemical residue on the grain. A food safety problem can arise during the process of transforming a commodity into a food product by what is added to the food, its method of processing, packaging or storing, or as a result of numerous other causes. Similarly, food can become unsafe during its final preparation. Thus a basic premise is that the entire food system - farm-to-table - needs to take steps to minimize the risk of a food safety problem.

The steps that need to be taken at each stage of the food system will vary. For example, the current strategy for addressing the risk of unsafe food in the home is to educate consumers, whereas the strategy for addressing the sanitation of a food processing facility is government regulation. Accordingly, food law addresses a wide range of issues with a variety of strategies.

Food Law Issues

  • Is our food supply safe? Have we minimized the risk that our food will make us sick?

 

  • Are consumers aware of what has been added to the food product they are purchasing and consuming? Are these food additives safe? Even though considered safe for the majority of consumers, will the additive (or even a basic ingredient such as a nut) cause an allergic reaction for some consumers?

 

  • Are the dietary supplements (which are not considered medicines or drugs) safe?

 

  • Do the products that claim to provide nutrition and health benefits fulfill those claims?

 

  • Does the product meet the standard for products that are identified by that name? For example, cheddar cheese is not the same as process cheese.

 

  • When can a product be labeled "organic?" Do consumers understand that a particular label does not guarantee that the food is safe, but instead is intended to inform the consumer so the consumer can then make a decision about what to purchase and consume?

 

  • As biotechnology advances and is used to modify ag commodities, the inputs used to produce commodities, or food products, are we aware of the opportunities and implications of adopting this technology?

 

  • What steps do we take to address our concerns about malicious attacks on our food system and food supply; e.g., bioterrorism?

 

  • Do consumers have the information they need to make good decisions about their food? Do consumers understand what is necessary to make good decisions about their food?

 

Food Industry Background

Generally, food reaches the consumer 1) needing some final preparation (such as the groceries purchased in the local store or farmers market) or 2) ready for consumption from a dine-in or carry-out restaurant, vending machine, school cafeteria, hospital, nursing home, or other institution that provides prepared meals/food.  The number of producers, agriculture commodities and food products, processors, vendors, and other firms involved with food, as well as the globalization of the industry, further complicate the "machine" that feeds the world's human population.  It is within this complex of intertwined relationships that the need to assure a safe food supply has to be addressed.

  • Examples of food safety concerns that may arise in production agriculture:
    • do the inputs used in producing grains, livestock, milk, vegetables, fruits, eggs, fish and other agricultural commodities leave residues on or in the raw commodities? 
    • What is the quality of the commodity being sold by the producer? Does that standard assure that it is a safe product?
    • How do we address safety and quality concerns for domestically produced and consumed commodities?  How do we address these concerns for imported commodities?  How do we assure commodities we export are safe for use as food?
    • Is there a difference between the regulations that apply to a commodity that will be used for human consumption and a commodity that will be used as livestock feed?
    • What steps are being taken to assure traceability of food back to the producer?
  •  

  • Examples of food safety concerns that may arise in food processing:
    • what steps must a processor take to assure the product is safe at the completion of processing and packaging? 
    • What steps must be taken to preserve information about the source of commodities that are blended during processing (to assure traceability)? 
    • What steps are taken to assure the safety of imported food products? What steps must the processor take to assure the consumer has the information necessary to make good decisions? What steps must a processor take to assure the product is safe to be exported?
    • What steps must be taken to assure the food product does not become unsafe during transportation and storage?
  •  

  • What steps must be taken to assure the product does not become unsafe as the product is marketed to consumers?  What steps must be taken to assure the product does not become unsafe as the product is prepared for immediate consumption? What educational programs can be developed to assist consumers make good decisions about their food?

Before addressing laws directing production, processing and preparation of food, it is helpful to overview the government response. This overview also involves a review of the structure of our government and legal system, including how our laws are created and organized.

 

Last updated January 21, 2010

   
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