The particular contribution of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to public health rests, for the most part, in its spawning of the great U.S. regulatory agencies: the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS); the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Of these, APHIS and FSIS remain within the USDA, while the EPA became an independent agency in 1971 and the FDA became an independent agency in 1941 and then later became part of the Department of Health Education and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services).
APHIS regulates plant and animal diseases mainly in order to protect economic interests. Some of the animal diseases, however, are transmissible to humans, including brucellosis (undulant fever) and tuberculosis. APHIS also is charged with keeping exotic animal diseases such as foot and mouth disease and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease) out of the United States. Epidemics of both these diseases among animals in several European countries during 2000 and 2001 have caused considerable fear of meat products as well as economic damage from extensive killing of animals to control the epidemics. Thus far during these outbreaks, however, no cases of either disease have been reported in the United States. Success in this area has marked APHIS as one of the most effective agencies of its kind in the world.
FSIS is charged with the inspection of meat, poultry, and eggs. A particularly large agency of more than 9,000 employees, FSIS is required by law to continuously inspect food animals during slaughter. This requirement is somewhat dated and is based on the dubious presumption that visual inspection is effective.
In order to modernize meat and poultry inspection, FSIS published a regulation in 1996 which has enabled the agency to employ the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point System (HACCP) as an added and improved safeguard. HACCP is a systems approach to food control that emphasizes prevention. First developed for the space program, HACCP is generally recognized as the most advanced system for ensuring safe food. Integral to the system is the identification of hazards that could contaminate the food and a comprehensive set of verification steps and audits that ensure the system has been effective. First adapted to a regulatory framework by the U.S. government, HACCP is now the standard of food inspection throughout the world. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has evaluated HACCP and concluded that it is, in fact, reducing food-borne disease from meat and poultry sources.
Egg inspection primarily consists of publishing standards for storage and temperature coupled with delegated collaboration with state and local officials. Egg safety concerns have been heightened by the advent of Salmonella enteritidis in the early 1980s. This organism found a new niche in the oviduct of laying chickens. While causing no disease to the bird, by seeding itself in the egg yolk it became a leading cause of salmonellosis in humans. Control programs center on eliminating the disease from breeder and laying flocks, as well as with consumer education programs designed to encourage adequate cooking of eggs. These interdiction programs have materially reduced human infection associated with the organism.
FSIS also operates two so-called "zero tolerance" programs—for Listeria monocytogenes and for Escherichia coli 0157: H7. Zero tolerance means that the presence of the organism at any level in a sample of ready-to-eat food is grounds for recall of the food from the marketplace. The largest food recalls in American history have resulted from this policy over the past two years. The L. monocytogenes program was initiated in 1988; a 1994 evaluation by CDC credited the program with a 25 percent reduction in human Listeriosis. The hemorrhagic E. coli program was implemented in 1994; human enterohemorrhagic E. coli has not particularly declined, but it also has not increased since the inception of the program in the midst of an annually progressing incidence.
FSIS has overseen a dramatic reduction in chemical contaminants of the meat and poultry supply. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, 10 percent or more of these foods were contaminated with anabolic steroids, antibiotics, pesticides, or heavy metals. Today, the levels of violative residues are below 1 percent and, in most meat commodities, levels are approaching zero. Violative levels are hazardous concentrations in foods. These accomplishments are due to a risk-based sampling program followed by sanctions against violators, due in part to a productive synergy with FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM). CVM has banned or severely restricted a number of persistent agricultural chemicals such as diethylstilbesterol, sulfamethazine, and dimetridazole. CVM has acted on information developed with FSIS to both educate and prosecute farmers and veterinarians who do not use animal drugs correctly.
LESTER M. CRAWFORD
LESTER M. CRAWFORD, The Gale Group Inc., Macmillan Reference USA, New York,