When a fierce winter storm tossed the Santa Clara I in New Jersey coastal fishing waters on January 3, 1992, 432 drums of toxic arsenic trioxide washed over-board. As a salvage firm and the Coast Guard cleaned up the spilled cargo, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) swept into action. Thanks to the FDA, no contaminated seafood ever found its way into stores.
The FDA is on the scene after hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes, when foods damaged by floodwater or power loss threaten to compound public health problems. After Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston, South Carolina, in 1989, more than 1.7 million pounds of unsafe food were destroyed.
Even without an emergency, the FDA works every day to protect U.S. consumers. As a separate government agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the FDA enforces the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and related health laws. FDA began as a federal agency in 1927, but its origins go back to President Lincoln’s appointment of chemist Charles Wetherill to the Bureau of Chemistry in 1862.
Today about 9,000 employees work for the FDA as investigators, inspectors, microbiologists, chemists, lawyers, public affairs specialists, and in other positions. They oversee the manufacture, import, storage, transport, and sale of food, drugs, cosmetics, and related products.
The FDA doesn’t regulate everything you eat. Meat and poultry are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Licensing for grocery stores and restaurants is handled by local or state governments.
Still, FDA’s regulatory reach is broad. Almost 95,000 businesses are regulated by the FDA, and about half of those are in the food industry. The FDA wants to make sure the food you buy is safe and wholesome. It also wants you, the consumer, to know what you’re buying and get what you’re promised.
Is that strawberry preserves on your toast? Jellies and preserves, macaroni, orange juice, canned fruit, peanut butter, and ketchup are just a few of many foods that must meet FDA standards of identity. FDA standards protect you from fraudulent substitutions.
FDA rules forbid adulteration, or contamination, of food. This could happen if a manufacturer intentionally “waters down” a product with an inferior ingredient. Or it could happen by accident if a processing plant is unsanitary.
What about chemicals added to foods to preserve freshness or enhance flavor? Manufacturers of new food additives must prove their safety to the FDA.
The FDA also makes sure chemicals that might get into foods indirectly won’t present a public health problem. Inspectors test for safe levels of pesticide residues. It also regulates medicated feeds and drugs given to animals used for food, so those chemicals don’t threaten consumers’ health.
So far, FDA’S food safety program has operated mostly in hindsight, looking at whether the finished product meets standards. Now the FDA is looking ahead to Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) systems. By carefully monitoring production from start to finish, (pronounced “hassip”) uses checkpoints to prevent food hazards from happening in the first place.
What If Something Goes Wrong?
Spread out among 157 cities, FDA’S 1, 1 00 investigators and inspectors police more than 45,000 businesses in the food industry. What happens when the FDA finds something wrong?
After the FDA discovered that ammonia gas had contaminated 58 tons of frozen vegetables and seafood at a Washington state warehouse, the 11 companies owning the food agreed to destroy it. Other times the FDA must order destruction, as it did when decomposed shrimp contaminated a batch of frozen seafood at D’Iberville, Mississippi.
Sometimes the FDA allows companies to correct a problem themselves. When “corn oil” shipped from Florida to Puerto Rico turned out to be soybean oil, the FDA let the seller relabel it as “vegetable oil.”
When companies won’t cooperate, the FDA goes to court to stop illegal practices. It can even seek criminal penalties for violations. By selling fake orange juice made from beet sugar, a Kentucky company cheated consumers out of more than $12 million. After a three-week trial in 1994, the owner was convicted of conspiracy, mail fraud, and 20 counts of violating the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. He was fined $100,000 and sentenced to prison for eight years and eight months.
Read the Label
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 greatly expanded FDA’S food labeling requirements. Now almost all packaged foods must tell the product name, net quantity (how much product you get), company name, list of ingredients, and nutrition facts.
Nutrition facts appear in a standard panel format, which makes comparison shopping easier. The label must tell how much of the daily value each serving provides for various nutrients. This way, you can judge how the food fits into a full day’s diet.
The FDA strictly limits health claims on food labels. But labels can state one of eight allowed claims, such as a link between saturated fat and cholesterol and a greater risk of coronary heart disease.
Previously, manufacturers could market a product as a “good source” of a nutrient, or as being “light” or “low,” without meeting any standards. Now claims about a product’s nutrient value must meet specific definitions. A “high-fiber” food, for example, must have 5 grams or more of fiber per serving. A product with “reduced” or “less” sodium must have at least 25 percent less per serving than the food would have otherwise.
FDA’S label requirements help people with weight problems, allergies, or high blood pressure watch what they eat. And while the FDA won’t tell you or anyone else what to eat, more information helps all consumers make better decisions about nutrition.