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Food Safety

The agriculture community has important economic reasons to be concerned and informed about food safety requirements and issues. To be accepted in the marketplace, agricultural products must:

For the latest information about food safety programs in EPA and other federal agencies, choose from the topics below. You will find regularly updated guidance on legal requirements, sources of assistance in meeting those requirements, and information about some of the latest research and technology available to support food producers, processors, and marketers in their efforts to maintain and improve the nation's food supply.

More information from EPA
EPA and Food Security
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and Food Production
Food Irradiation

More information from the federal government
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service
National Integrated Food Safety Initiative
Gateway to Government Food Safety Information
FSIS Library of Export Requirements


Food Bioterrorism Regulation

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is issuing a final regulation that requires the establishment and maintenance of records by persons who manufacture, process, pack, transport, distribute, receive, hold, or import food in the United States. Such records are to allow for the identification of the immediate previous sources and immediate subsequent recipients of food. The final rule implements the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (the Bioterrorism Act), and is necessary to help address credible threats of serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals.

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Pesticide Residues in Food

Any pesticide that remains in or on food or feed is called a residue. Residues that remain in food or feed at harvest or slaughter are monitored to avoid hazards to the humans and domestic animals that will eat them.The Food Quality Protection Act, passed in 1996, establishes a strong, health-based safety standard for pesticide residues in all foods. The food safety standard for pesticide residues in food is a "reasonable certainty of no harm" standard for aggregate exposure using dietary residues and all other reliable exposure information.

Tolerances: EPA establishes maximum residue levels (tolerances) when registering a pesticide. A tolerance is the maximum amount of pesticide residue that may legally remain on or in treated crops and animals (and animal products such as milk or eggs) that are to be sold for food or feed. Tolerances are enforced by the Department of Health and Human Services/Food and Drug Administration for most foods, and by the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Food Safety and Inspection Service for meat, poultry, and some egg products. Surveys of pesticide residues in food typically reveal that the vast majority of samples are below tolerance.

Risks to Children: When setting new or reassessing existing tolerances or tolerance exemptions under the new standard, EPA must focus explicitly on exposures and risks to children and infants. EPA must

Non-Occupational Exposures: In addition, when making a determination as to whether or not there is a reasonable certainty that a pesticide chemical will cause "no harm," EPA must consider other non-occupational sources of pesticide exposure when performing risk assessments and setting tolerances. This includes dietary exposure from drinking water, non-occupational exposure, exposure from like pesticides that share a common mechanism of toxicity, as well as other exposure scenarios.

Endocrine Disruptors: When setting new or reassessing existing tolerances and tolerance exemptions, EPA must also evaluate the potential for endocrine disruption. The law directs the Agency to use its authority to require specific tests and information on estrogenic effects for all pesticide chemical residues.

Consumer Actions: Consumers can reduce exposure to pesticide residues by washing fresh fruits and vegetables with water, peeling, scrubbing with a brush, and throwing away the outer leaves of leafy vegetables such as lettuce and cabbage, unless such trimming has already been done by the grocer. Although these activities may not remove all residues, they may significantly reduce the amount of any remaining pesticides. In addition, cooking often removes or reduces pesticide residues.

Related publications from the Ag Center
Food Safety

Related laws and policies
Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act
Food Quality Protection Act  

More information from EPA
Framework for Addressing Key Science Issues Presented by FQPA
PR Notice 97-1: Agency Actions Under the Requirements of the Food Quality Protection Act
The Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) of 1996

More information from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Channels of Trade Policy for Commodities With Residues of Pesticide Chemicals, for Which Tolerances Have Been Revoked, Suspended, or Modified by EPA Pursuant to Dietary Risk Considerations

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Strategy to Prevent Foodborne Disease

On January 25, 1997, President Clinton announced a new initiative to improve the safety of the nation's food supply. This is a joint initiative among the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and EPA. The goal of this initiative is to reduce, to the greatest extent possible, the incidence of foodborne illness. New pathogens, new food products, huge increases in imported foods, the growing importance of food exports, and increasing antimicrobial resistance among foodborne pathogens present new challenges to the nation's food safety programs.

Public Health Problem: Foodborne infections remain a major public health problem. The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, a private non-profit organization, estimated in its 1994 report, Foodborne Pathogens: Risks and Consequences, that as many as 9,000 deaths and 6.5 to 33 million illnesses in the United States each year are food-related. Hospitalization costs alone for these illnesses are estimated at over $3 billion a year. Costs for lost productivity for seven specific pathogens have been estimated to range between $6 billion and $9 billion. Total costs for all foodborne illnesses are likely to be much higher. These estimates do not take into account the total burden placed on society by the chronic, often life-long consequences caused by some foodborne pathogens.

Additional important safety concerns are associated with the greater susceptibility to foodborne infections of several population groups. These include persons with lowered immunity due to HIV/AIDS, those on medications for cancer treatment or for organ transplantation, as well as pregnant women (and their fetuses), young children, and elderly persons. Patients taking antibiotics, or antacids, are also at greater risk of infection from some pathogens. Other groups who may be disproportionately affected include persons living in institutional settings, such as hospitals and nursing homes, and those with inadequate access to health care, such as homeless persons, migrant farm workers, and others of low socioeconomic status.

Causes:  Sources of food contamination are almost as numerous and varied as the contaminants themselves. Bacteria and other infectious organisms are pervasive in the environment. Salmonella enteritidis enters eggs directly from the hen. Bacteria (occasionally pathogenic) inhabit the surfaces of fruits and vegetables in the field. Molds and their toxic byproducts can develop in grains during unusually wet or dry growing seasons, damage and stress during harvesting, or during improper storage. Seafood may become contaminated from agricultural and other runoff, as well as by sewage, microorganisms, and toxins present in marine environments. Many organisms that cause foodborne illness in humans can be part of the normal flora of the gastrointestinal tract of food-producing animals without any adverse effects to the animal. Milk, eggs, seafood, poultry, and meat from food-producing animals may become contaminated due to contaminated feed, misuse of veterinary drugs, or poor farming practices, including production and harvesting activities, or disposal of solid waste on land. Foods may become contaminated during processing due to malfunctioning or improperly sanitized equipment; misuse of cleaning materials; rodent and insect infestations; and improper storage. Foods may become contaminated in retail facilities and in the home through use of poor food handling practices.

Although many hazards threaten the safety of our food, certain foodborne hazards are of particular public health concern, and would be targeted for immediate attention by this initiative. Studies have shown that the following microbial pathogens are the predominant foodborne pathogens. They are:

Additional information
Information about Listeria monocytogenes
Parasites and Foodborne Illness

Health Effects: These microbial pathogens may give rise to diseases that are far more serious than the uncomfortable but relatively temporary inconvenience of diarrhea and vomiting, which are the most common symptoms of so-called "food poisoning." Foodborne infections can result in very serious immediate consequences, such as spontaneous abortion, as well as long-lasting conditions such as reactive arthritis, Guillain-Barré syndrome (the most common cause of acute paralysis in adults and children), and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which can lead to kidney failure and death, particularly in young children.

Related publications from the Ag Center
Food Safety

Related laws and policies
Clean Water Act 
Safe Drinking Water Act  

More information from federal agencies
Food Safety from Farm to Table: A New Strategy for the 21st Century
Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
Government Food Safety Information
National Integrated Food Safety Initiative
President's Council on Food Safety 
Food Irradiation
Foodborne Illness Education

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Harmful Algal Blooms and Seafood Safety

Most species of algae are not harmful. Algae are the energy producers at the base of the ocean's food web, upon which all other marine organisms depend. However, a few species of algae and other microbes can become harmful to marine life and to people under certain conditions. Scientists call such events "harmful algal blooms." Brown tides, toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks, and some kinds of red tides are all considered types of armful algal blooms. Some harmful algal blooms, like toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks, can cause detrimental effects when the microbes are at low concentrations in the water and cannot be visibly detected. In other cases, like certain red and brown tides, harmful effects occur when the algae reach high concentrations that discolor the water. However, not all algal blooms that discolor the water are harmful -- many red tides appear to have no negative effects on marine life, people, or the environment.

Some kinds of algal blooms, like toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks and some kinds of red tides, are harmful because the algae produce one or more toxins that poison fish or shellfish, and can pose human health risks when people come in contact with affected waters. These toxic algal blooms may also kill seabirds and other animals indirectly as the toxins are passed up the food chain. Certain kinds of these toxic algal blooms can cause human health problems via contaminated seafood, like Ciguatera Fish Poisoning, Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning, and Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning. However, there is no evidence that Pfiesteria-related illnesses are associated with eating fish or shellfish.

Related publications from the Ag Center
Food Safety

Related laws and policies
Clean Water Act 
Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments of 1990

More information from EPA
Harmful Algal Blooms
Cyanobacterial Harmful Algal Blooms (CyanoHABs)
Nutrient Pollution Policy and Data

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Fish Food Advisories

Fish are an important part of a healthy diet.  They are a lean, low-calorie source of protein.  Some sport fish caught in the nation's lakes, rivers, oceans, and estuaries, however, may contain chemicals that could pose health risks if these fish are eaten in large amounts. Fish taken from polluted waters might be hazardous to your health. Eating fish containing chemical pollutants may cause birth defects, liver damage, cancer, and other serious health problems.

Fish may be exposed to chemical pollutants in the water and in the food they eat. They may take up some of the pollutants into their bodies.  The pollutants are found in the skin, fat, internal organs, and sometimes muscle tissue of the fish.

The states and the four U.S. Territories and Native American tribes have primary responsibility for protecting their residents from the health risks of consuming contaminated noncommercially caught fish and wildlife. They do this by issuing consumption advisories for the general population as well as for sensitive subpopulations. These advisories inform the public that high concentrations of chemical contaminants have been found in local fish and wildlife and include recommendations to limit or avoid consumption of certain fish and wildlife species from specific waterbodies or waterbody types. Similarly, in Canada, the provinces and territories have primary responsibility for issuing fish consumption advisories.

Related publications from the Ag Center
Food Safety 

Related laws and policies
Clean Water Act 
Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments of 1990

More information from EPA
Fish Consumption Advisories

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