Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The FDA and USDA, Explained to the Best of My Ability: A Semi-Coherent Guide to the Government Agencies Regulating Food

They control almost everything we eat, yet we do not know who they are. They essentially make agricultural policy, yet we don’t know if they like vegetables. They oversee every aspect of food safety, yet we don’t know where their office is, or if they work out of a Starbucks.

They are your parents the FDA and the USDA.

I see these agencies mentioned all the time, in almost every newspaper and online article regarding the regulation of chow. Together, they influence food health, prices, and safety more than any other organizations on Earth. But I’ve always been hazy on what the FDA and USDA actually do, and what separates the two.

So, I did a little research, and discovered some surprising things. For example: the FDA oversees makeup but not tap water, and the USDA employs over 100,000 people, which means they need a GIANT restroom. There’s more, too, but you know – it’s included below.

Ultimately, I hope this demystifies these two all-powerful federal behemoths. As usual, if I have anything wrong (and I’m sure I do), please let me know. Also, unless otherwise noted, most of this information was gleaned from the FDA and USDA websites (with a few helpful stats from Wikipedia).


FDA stands for: the Food and Drug Administration.

It is: the agency within the Department of Health and Human Services primarily concerned with public health, which often involves food and drug safety.

It employs: a little over 9000 people.

And is currently headed up by: Margaret A. Hamburg, who used to be the Health Commissioner for NYC. Obama pulled her in around mid-2009.

It gets most of its regulatory power from: the aptly named Food, Drug, & Cosmetic Act of 1938, signed under FDR.

The FDA oversees: Safety and labeling for food, drugs, & makeup, drug approvals, biologics (blood supply, etc.), veterinary products, radiation-emitting devices (X-rays), and medical devices & products.

But not: Tap water, most booze, pesticides, and dietary supplements.

However, the division of the FDA we’re most concerned with is: CFSAN, or the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Please note that: this is very different from CSPAN, and also eight times as interesting.

CFSAN oversees: Labeling and nutrition (except for meat and some eggs, which fall under the USDA), biotechnology, ingredients and packaging, inspections, and compliance.

CFSAN explains their mission thusly: To “establish and maintain food standards of identity (for example, what the requirements are for a product to be labeled, ‘yogurt’) and standards of maximum acceptable contamination. CFSAN also sets the requirements for nutrition labeling of most foods..” (Wiki)

Where you most often see CFSAN’s work:
  • Labels. They created the Nutrition Facts label, approve all labels like “low fat” and “all-natural,” and enacted a law to put allergy labeling on processed food.
  • The news. When there’s a salmonella outbreak in peanut butter? The FDA gets blamed for their inspection procedures, or lack thereof.
CFSAN gets its data from: JIFSAN (Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition), which works with the University of Maryland, and NCFST (National Center for Food Safety and Technology), which works with the University of Illinois and food industry reps. Essentially, they do the research CFSAN translates into labeling.

That is: a lot of acronyms.

In regards to food, the FDA often comes under fire for: Lapses in food safety (e.coli, etc.), lack of/poorly done food safety inspections, being essentially powerless, being too powerful, being puppets of powerful politicians, approving additives that are known to be harmful.

You can find more information at:



USDA stands for: the United States Department of Agriculture

It is: the “federal executive department responsible for developing and executing U.S. federal government policy on farming, agriculture, and food.” (Wiki) In other words, it’s a whole department, whereas the FDA is a division within a department.

It employs: well over 100,000 people, making it much larger than the FDA.

And is currently headed up by: former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack (D).

Who looks like: the corn-fed lovechild of Brian Dennehy and Ned Beatty.

It gets most of its regulatory power from: Well, there’s really not one big law, but more of a series of big ones that started around the late 1800s. Many were in response to a growing nation’s concerns about the safety and stability of their food supply. You know Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle? That kind of investigative journalism (a.k.a. muckraking) set a lot of the change in motion.

The USDA oversees: Brace yourselves. Agriculture, food and nutrition, education and outreach, laws and regulations, marketing and trade, environmental issues concerning food, development. Essentially, all food. No kidding.

But not: Most food safety. Again, with the exception of meat and some eggs, that falls to the FDA. The USDA website does include a TON of guidelines, however.

However, the division of the USDA we’re most concerned with is: Pretty much all of them, which makes this bulletpoint kind of lame. But if I had to choose a few:
  • FNS (Food and Nutrition Service)
  • CNPP (Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion)
  • FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service)
  • ERS (Economic Research Service)
  • GIPSA (Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyard Administration).
The rest are dedicated largely toward statistics, research, conservation, rural development, and farm policy, which are undoubtedly important, but would necessitate a week and a new brain implant.

Those guys oversee, respectively:
  • FNS takes care of food education and getting edibles to needy kids and families.
  • CNPP creates dietary guidelines like the food pyramid.
  • FSIS handles meat and egg safety.
  • ERS provides the economic research that guides almost every aspect of food pricing.
  • GIPSA markets meat and grain, which is found in almost all parts of the American diet.
That aside, let’s get back to: exploring the USDA as a whole.

The USDA explains their mission thusly: “We provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management … We want to be recognized as a dynamic organization that is able to efficiently provide the integrated program delivery needed to lead a rapidly evolving food and agriculture system.” (USDA)

Where you most often see their work: Everywhere. All day. In everything you eat. No kidding.

That is: insane.

The USDA gets its data from: Both in-house research and statistic organizations like the ERS, NAL (National Agricultural Library), and ARS (Argricultural Research Service), and out-of-house places like everywhere on this list. In an organization of this size, it’s hard to list them all.

My god, these people: love acronyms.

In regards to food, the USDA often comes under fire for: How much time do you have? Try: being in bed with food lobbyists, advising based on political influence rather than scientific fact, negligence in food education, obesity rates, any and all farm policy, any and all issues with U.S. meat, the obvious pro-lobbyist slant to the food pyramid, food prices that are either too high or too low, animal rights, worker rights, ethical quandaries over genetically modified food, the environmental costs of large-scale agriculture. Basically, everything but the breakup of the Beatles, though I’m sure they had a hand in that, too.

You can find more information at:


And that’s it. Hope it helps, but just in case - folks, what’d I miss? Any other questions? Fire away in the comment section.

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Laurie said...

This is a great post. We should all know more about where our food comes from AND who regulates it.

Being from Iowa, this line made me bust a gut:

"former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack (D).
Who looks like: the corn-fed lovechild of Brian Dennehy and Ned Beatty."

Too funny and too true!

Amy said...

Fascinating! Thanks for the research!

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff, I've always lumped those acronym-y govt mega-dept's together.
But mostly, I wanted to say that you are hilarious. I love your writing!

Laura said...

Holy crap, I love this post! Thank you!! It's all so clear(-ish) now!

PC said...

Most amusing and well-explained. The American people should thank you. I certainly do.

Anonymous said...

FDA/CFSAN does oversee dietary supplements. They are treated as foods and are regulated as such.

Kris said...

Anon, apparently they only regulate the supplements AFTER they're proven to be dangerous, which is weird.

Rebecca said...

There are also state agencies which supplement the responsibilities of the FDA and USDA. I, for example, work for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF - yep, we loves our acronyms, too). We conduct food safety inspections of all food manufacturers, dairies, state meat plants, warehouses, and retail grocers. (Local health departments do the same for restaurants and institutions like schools and hospitals.) I am in charge of the food labeling review program, in addition to my inspection responsibilities.

Cindee said...

You can even make the government funny and interesting. Kris 2012!

Anonymous said...

The way supplements are regulated is simply a function of how DSHEA was written. Just like all foods, there is no premarket approval necessary for dietary supplements. There are cGMPs and adverse event reporting requirements. FDA's authority is somewhat limited under DSHEA when it comes to enforcement although they have taken one supplement off the market (ephedra, and that took a TON of effort). Because of the limited enforcement power, they rely heavily on FTC to pull ads and they do try to go after adulterated products like some of the steroid and ED supplements that contain active drug ingredients. FDA also tries to keep up with the dietary supplements which make "drug claims" as opposed to structure function claims.

ME said...

Ok, I just came upon this post after a google search on an explanation of the USDA and FDA relationship and I gotta tell ya-HILARIOUS yet SCARY TRUE!!! I saw you have King Corn on the sidebar of this site. Not sure if you know the filmakers latest project

Lorian Gray said...

Thank you for explaining that. I'm a little chagrined that I didn't realize that Dept. of Agriculture IS USDA. I sure didn't know that FDA was under DHHS. I thought they were in the same department. What I do know is that FDA regulates how food will be labeled at the grocery store. Three years ago they decided that cloned beef does not need to be labeled!

Lorian Gray said...

By the way, tap water is mostly regulated locally with your water bureau at the city and county level. The EPA is responsible ultimately for industrial pollution but they don't do jack.

Jess said...

Hey I just wanted to thank you for doing this. I'm working on some research related to the Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law earlier this year and a lot of people don't know the difference between the USDA and FDA primarily their history and functions. Personally I believe the F in the FDA should fall under USDA and that one agency should be responsible for both the safety and quality. There's so much government overlap here it's ridiculous.

Alisha said...

good point Jess.
ya this was very entertaining- I actually laughed out myself- pretty sure I got some weird looks.