Learn more about our nation’s food safety regulations and find out how growers across the nation are doing their part to keep consumers safe.
The importance of food quality and safety can’t be overstated. According to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, each year millions of Americans are medically treated for foodborne illnesses as a result of poor food safety practices. Because of the seriousness of food safety, farmers recognize the high stakes of keeping our nation protected from contaminants and harmful pathogens, and therefore employ several best practices to reduce potential safety risks.
Keeping food free of chemical, physical, and microbial contaminants during planting season all the way through harvest is a top priority to our American farmers and has prompted new regulations and procedures over the last decade.
The Steps Farmers Take to Ensure Food Quality and Safety
With technological advancements over the last decade, farmers have gained access to several valuable tools, providing them greater insight into the quality and health of their crops—something their predecessors worked hard towards. Today, farmers follow strict food safety plans and keep detailed records of the food safety protocols that guide their operations. As a standard protocol, they regularly test their irrigation water for foodborne pathogens such as E. coli and listeria. Growers often follow crop-specific guidelines to ensure that higher risk produce like lettuce, tomatoes, and cantaloupe are carefully tended to throughout their life cycle. Produce with porous or rugged exteriors present more of a risk to consumers, because they are difficult to thoroughly clean.
Staying vigilant to potential risks is considered a best practice by the agriculture industry and is enforced by food safety regulations. Farmers are extremely aware of the cleanliness of all packing containers, sorting tables, coolers, and transportation bins that their products pass through as they travel to the consumer.
U.S. Food Safety Rules and Regulations for Agricultural Operations
Prior to 1906, the agriculture industry lacked a centralized regulatory body for food safety. Most agricultural regulations were from the state level and varied by region. The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act introduced the first set of federal regulations over the agricultural markets. Since that time, the U.S. has established 15 federal agencies that administer more than 30 laws related to food safety. These laws were created to ensure consumer safety and their protection from harmful or fatal contaminants.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are the regulating bodies for food safety in the United States. Food produced in the U.S. will be vetted by one or both government bodies before it reaches the end consumer. The FDA, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Health, regulates the safety of drugs, dietary supplements, and ensures that consumables and health products are wholesome, sanitary, and safe. They are also responsible for monitoring and verifying the accuracy of product labeling. In contrast, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the regulatory body for the U.S.’s agricultural industry. The primary role of the USDA is to monitor the safety and nutritional quality of U.S.-produced foods like meats, poultry, and eggs. Under their umbrella falls the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, Food Nutrition Service, and SNAP. Each of these organizations have specific guidelines that they enforce to ensure that agricultural economy is producing high-quality food products that are free of contaminants and foodborne illnesses.
Understanding the difference between the USDA and FDA and how they influence the decisions farmers make on the farm, can be difficult. Much of the misconception stems from the use of the USDA logo on labeling of meats and organic products. Nearly 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, including dairy, seafood, produce, packaged foods, bottled water, and eggs are regulated by the FDA. The USDA has the greatest impact on farmers—setting guidelines that range from how meat will be graded to what meat will be used in American restaurants. The USDA also oversees the safety of raw fruits and vegetables, however once the produce is processed the FDA is then responsible for ensuring its safety.
On-the-Farm Food Safety Efforts and Best Management Practices (BMP’s)
Regular inspections help keep food safety issues in agriculture to a minimum. Each U.S. state has a dedicated Food and Safety Division, which is responsible for performing regular on-site inspections to employ or enforce safeguards to keep consumers safe. For example, the Food Safety Division of the Georgia Department of Agriculture has approximately 50 inspectors that work across the state in one of four programs that are concentrated around retail, manufactured foods, poultry and egg graders, and farm safety.
The poultry and egg graders program ensures that poultry and egg purchases meet the baseline quality, condition, temperature, packaging, and storage requirements that are set by the Food Safety Division. As for the farm safety program, growers receive a combination of educational and regulatory strategies for fruit and vegetable production for these four key areas:
The farm safety program ensures that growers have access to the resources they need to provide safe, high quality food for consumers in the U.S. and around the world.
Farmers Follow Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) to Keep Consumers Safe
Another way farmers keep food safe is by following Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices (GHP), both of which help reduce consumers’ and workers’ exposure to potential contamination and foodborne illnesses.
GAP and GHP are voluntary audits that verify that fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled, and stored as safely as possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards. These audits verify adherence to the recommendations made in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, as well as industry recognized food safety practices. By adhering to these standards farmers significantly reduce the risk of contamination.
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