The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), is the public health regulatory agency responsible for ensuring that United States' commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged. The FSIS draws its authority from the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, the Poultry Products Inspection Act of 1957 and the Egg Products Inspection Act of 1970. The FSIS also acts as a national health department and is responsible for the safety of public food-related establishments as well as business investigation.
Food products that are under the jurisdiction of the FSIS, and thus subject to inspection, are those that contain more than 3% meat or 2% poultry products, with several exceptions, and egg products (liquid, frozen or dried). Shell eggs, meat and poultry products that are not under the jurisdiction of the FSIS are under the jurisdiction of the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Food-related establishments to ensure that the said businesses follow USDA regulations.
More than 7,800 FSIS inspection program personnel are assigned to about 6,200 Federal slaughter, food processing, and import establishments in the United States. They verify the processing of tens of billions of pounds of meat and poultry, and billions of pounds of egg products. At slaughter establishments, inspectors perform antemortem inspections to prevent slaughter of diseased animals. Then, postmortem examinations are performed to identify diseased carcasses not evident antemortem. Regulations for rapid chilling, adequate trimming and sanitary washing are enforced to reduce microbial contamination. Samples are collected for residue testing to ensure antibiotic, pesticide and other residues are below regulatory limits. For cattle, tissue samples are tested for the presence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. In processing plants, procedures and formulations are monitored to ensure that FSIS requirements and standards of identity are met. Inspectors in egg plants primarily monitor pasteurization. In all plants, sanitation, net weight and accurate labeling (including nutrition information) regulations are enforced. FSIS also is responsible for products presented for import inspection at ports and borders, from countries that FSIS has determined to have inspection systems equivalent to Federal inspection systems.
Everyone in the food chain, from farmer through consumer, has a responsibility in keeping the food supply safe. Meat, poultry, and processed egg products can be contaminated with bacteria at any point during production, distribution, and consumption. FDA works closely with other federal agencies that have some role in the regulation of meat, poultry, and processed egg products along the farm-to-table continuum.
FSIS is a separate and distinct agency independent from the FDA. FSIS is under the direction of the Department of Agriculture while the FDA is under the direction of the Department of Health and Human Services. The two agencies share responsibilities on various topics concerning food safety, but have different methods of enforcement and supervision of food producers. For example, both FSIS and the FDA have the authority to regulate food labeling. In March 2014, FSIS implemented a new regulatory requirement for labeling; 9 CFR Part 412. At times, FSIS requires a food producer to obtain pre-market approval of their intended label before the product is entered into the stream of commerce (for products under their jurisdiction. If product is covered by a standard of identity and meets the established standard, then pre-market approval is not necessary. The FDA does not require that a food producer, in their jurisdiction, obtain pre-market approval of their label. FSIS takes a preemptive role in food labeling where the FDA takes a reactive role in food labeling. The FSIS also has authority in inspection and monitoring of food-related establishments, while the FDA has no jurisdiction regarding restaurants and food businesses.
FSIS derives its authority from the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, the Poultry Products Inspection Act of 1957, and the Egg Products Inspection Act of 1970. FSIS inspects meat and poultry products to ensure that there is no misbranded or adulterated products being put into the stream of commerce.
Recalls are voluntary actions by manufacturers, distributors or importers to protect the public by removing from commerce products that are adulterated or misbranded. The majority of recalls in recent years have been due to undeclared allergens on product labels.
As soon as FSIS learns that a meat or poultry product under its jurisdiction may be unsafe or mislabeled is in commerce, the agency forms a team to determine whether a recall is needed. The Recall Committee is composed of FSIS representatives from various areas of expertise. The committee evaluates all the information available and makes a recommendation to the establishment whose product is in question, including the parameters of the recall.
After a recall is issued, FSIS conducts effectiveness checks to ensure that the company’s customers (or consignees) have received notice of the recall and are making every effort to retrieve and destroy the recalled product or return it to the recalling firm. FSIS personnel verify that the recalling firm has been diligent and successful in notifying and advising their consignees of the need to retrieve and control recalled product, and that the consignees have responded accordingly. FSIS has formal agreements with many state governments that allow those states to participate in effectiveness checks, thus improving the speed and effectiveness of recalls.
When a product is recalled, FSIS issues a recall release to the media in the affected area, sends it to public health partners and stakeholders and posts it on the FSIS Web site.
In certain situations where a recall is not warranted, but there is still a risk to public health, FSIS may issue a public health alert. PHAs have been issued when a product was not considered adulterated, but illnesses were involved; when illnesses were associated with a meat or poultry product, but a source of contamination was not identified; or a product is no longer available in commerce, but may be held or in use by consumers.
The FSIS also acts as an investigation organization involved in food-related businesses if suspicions regarding consumer safety or criminal abuse arise. During an investigation, the FSIS will dispatch an investigator that will attempt to detect any criminal or violations regarding the USDA regulations. If evidence of consumer abuse or infractions regarding the USDA health regulations, the FSIS will close the business until the establishment has restored itself to the acceptable level for any USDA approved business. If major criminal activity or heavy violation of the USDA regulations is found, the FSIS has the authority to shut down the business to protect consumer safety and public health. In extreme cases, where egregious acts of disregard for the regulatory requirements has been extensively identified and documented, establishment owners and operators have been tried, convicted and jailed for their actions or lack thereof.