Everything you eat is regulated by a government agency. The question is, which one? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) share the complex task of regulating the nation’s food supply. The problem is, it’s not always clear who regulates what, and sometimes, this can change depending on how that food is processed.
FDA vs. USDA: What’s the Difference?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for monitoring food, animal feed, drugs, dietary supplements, and a few other types of products. They also spearhead efforts like the Total Diet Study, which monitors levels of certain chemicals in the U.S. food supply. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a primary mission to support the country’s agricultural economy and ensure that the products coming from our agricultural pipeline are safe and nutritious. USDA does research to support their mission as well. See some overlap? You’re not alone. Both agencies are charged with monitoring the safety of the food supply, and so some boundaries are necessary so that the agencies aren’t stepping on each other’s toes.
Who Regulates What? An Overview
The USDA oversees over meat, poultry, and egg products. However, the majority of the food supply (80% or more) is regulated by FDA. FDA is responsible for dairy, seafood, produce, packaged foods, bottled water, and whole eggs. Let’s break it down further.
USDA is the primary agency responsible for regulating meat, including beef, pork, lamb, and poultry. When it comes to regulating meat, there are two services for which USDA is generally known: meat inspections and meat grading. Safety inspections are mandatory in meat-packing and meat-processing plants. Meat grading (labels such as “USDA Prime” and “USDA Choice”) is an optional service. All other meat besides beef, pork, lamb, and poultry is regulated by the FDA, including game meats and exotic meats.
FDA regulates most seafood, except for catfish, which is regulated by USDA.
This is where things start to get dicey. The FDA regulates whole eggs in the shell, whereas USDA regulates egg products once they come out of the shell, like packaged egg whites and powdered eggs. If you’re thinking that this sounds backwards, like FDA should be the one regulating the packaged version while USDA regulates the part that seems more agricultural, you’re not alone. To make matters worse, FDA regulates packaged egg replacements and egg substitutes, but only if those products don’t contain actual eggs.
Dairy products are regulated by FDA.
Raw fruits and vegetables are generally regulated by USDA, while processed fruits and vegetables are under the purview of FDA.
Products Containing Meat
Products with more than 3% raw meat, 2% or more cooked meat (or other portions of the carcass), or 30% or more fat or tallow, are under USDA jurisdiction. Conversely, products with less than 3% raw meat, less than 2% cooked meat (or other portions of the carcass), or less than 30% fat or tallow, are overseen by FDA, as are products containing “other meats.”
This is where things get really weird: the world of packaged sandwiches. Believe it or not, it matters whether the sandwich is an open-faced sandwich or not. Open-faced sandwiches, where the ratio of meat to bread (and other ingredients) is more than 50%, are regulated by the USDA. But sandwiches that have two slices of bread are regulated by the FDA. This is because the ratio of meat to other ingredients is less than 50%.
All of this makes for a pretty complex regulatory landscape. There have been numerous proposals in the past to combine the two agencies, but this has not yet happened. In the meantime, you can find other guides to who regulates what here and here.
Erica Bakota is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. After earning her PhD in chemistry at Rice University, she joined USDA as a research chemist, where she studied lipid oxidation and alternatives to partially hydrogenated oils. She then returned to Houston, Texas to join the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, where she led method development and validation for the Forensic Toxicology Laboratory. In March 2018, she made a move back to the feds and is now with the FDA as a chemist at the Kansas City Laboratory. Her work at FDA focuses on active ingredients in dietary supplements and pesticide residues in foods. You can read her posts here.