How does the regulation process work?

Interview with Dr. Marshall Martin, Professor of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University

From the Field to your Plate

Food regulation is far more complex and detailed than most people imagine. It’s the entire oversight process of your food from its very inception all the way until it reaches your mouth. This encompasses the production process (how it is grown or made), trade (where your food comes from and how it gets to where it’s going), quality (ensuring that your food is unadulterated), labeling and more. Food regulation exists to make sure that the food we eat is safe and of an adequate quality. Every country in the world has a set of food regulations, although not every country’s regulations are on par with others.

Labeling is only a small part of food regulation but it gets a lot of attention because it’s how people can judge what’s in their food and make decisions about what they want to eat. Labels are required by law for any foods that are sold across state lines (so the food at your local farmer’s market, so long as it’s grown in-state, doesn’t need a label unless the State requires it). Labels must be truthful and not misleading and food labeling is enforced by the Food and Drug Administration as well as the United States Department of Agriculture. Foods that do not meet federal standards are misbranded and subject to recall.

Labels provide the identity of the food, the amount in the package, cooking instructions, serving size, safety concerns (like allergens) and nutritional facts. The nutrition facts are intended to help us make informed decisions related to health and disease. For instance, sodium is related to hypertension, calcium to osteoporosis, iron to anemia. Mandatory labeling is more than just sticking words on a package. There is an entire regulatory process behind it (all the people and agencies that check every product to make sure it’s accurate). Due to the complexity of the process, labeling can be very costly and as such is often limited only to the most important information needed to make informed health decisions.

The regulation of genetically modified crops in the United States is divided among three regulatory agencies: the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Health and Human Services' Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (only transgenic food requires regulation by all three federal government agencies). A particular agency takes the lead depending on the nature of the food product.

USDA-APHIS protects animal agriculture from pests and diseases. They regulate any biotechnology products that could pose a risk, as well as any organisms or products known or suspected to be risks or pose risks. They regulate all aspects, including but not limited to import, handling, movement, confinement, and disposal. The EPA regulates sale, distribution and use of all pesticides. The EPA also sets tolerance limits for residues of pesticides on and in food and animal feed, or establishes an exemption from the requirement for a tolerance, under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The FDA oversees the safety and proper labeling of all plant-derived food and feed, including those from genetically engineered products. All food or feed, including that which is imported into the country, must meet the same standards.