What's the difference between the USDA and the FDA?

Difference between the USDA and the FDA


What's the difference between the USDA and the FDA?

Anything Americans consume has been examined and ranked by multiple government agencies, whose purpose is meant to implement and regulate laws that are for the safety of our health. Each agency has a different agenda, but has a lot of overlapping jurisdiction and control over related areas of consumer safety. These different agencies of regulation within the systems are very complex and unfortunately, have some flaws. Understanding what each agency governs is necessary in the strive for transparency within the regulatory systems. Here’s a breakdown of what the top two tiers of government regulate in food safety, and the large issues that are within each.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

The FDA regulated drugs, dietary supplements, and ensures that the food we consume in the US goes through the proper labeling, sanitation, and review process protocols. The FDA oversees over 80% of our food supply, and is responsible for regulating all processed foods created and sold in the US. The FDA also implements education to the food industry to ensure safe handling practices, recalls on unsafe food, and establish production standards. While raw fruits and vegetables fall under a different administration, once they’re processed, like apple sauce or ketchup, they become the FDA’s responsibility.

Companies have added hundreds of ingredients to processed foods with little to no oversight and monitoring, thanks to a loophole in a one of the many laws of the FDA. This technicality within one of the laws that was established in the ’50s, declares that commercial companies have the authority to deem an additive as “generally recognized as safe” without further approval. The loophole was originally intended to allow manufacturers to add common harmless ingredients, like vinegar and salt, to bypass the FDA’s lengthy and exhausting safety review process that can take several years. Some describe the FDA’s review process as a “highway that is constantly gridlocked”, which explains why companies find an alternative route. Companies regularly introduce new additives to improve their product texture, taste, appearance, or to extend their shelf life* without ever needing to inform the FDA of the details. Loophole aside, the FDA’s tedious review process has been criticized for years. Since companies bombarded the FDA with more than 10,000 ingredients within the last few decades, the review process has slowed down to an alarming rate. The average review takes two years, and some can drag on for decades depending on the ingredient. This disturbing flaw within the laws of the FDA shows that some of the regulations being abided by need to be brought up to date, so that additives can be thoroughly examined and approved correctly.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

The USDA works to support the US agricultural economy, and is supposed to provide safe, sufficient and nutritious food supply. The USDA oversees domestic and imported processed and unprocessed foods to ensure safety and correct packaging/labeling. This department also establishes dietary guidelines, and monitors food and nutrition service (aka food stamps) across the US. The USDA’s agenda is specifically focused on programs that interlock both the economy and agriculture, and leaves most of the food safety protocols to the FDA. Raw agricultural produce is one of the food items that fall under the regulation of the USDA. Specific types of grains, legumes, commercial meat, and poultry are regulated by the USDA, while the majority of these foods are regulated by the FDA.

A large criticism that the USDA receives from consumers is because fraudulent organic products overwhelm the agency’s system, get overlooked, and are put into the market. The USDA’s National Organic Program has not been able to keep up with the growth of demand for organic food and products. Not only is the system in place completely outdated in technology and resources, but review processes by the USDA often are neglected or dismissed. Specifically, the problem stems from imported products. In order for an imported product to become certified organic in the US, the supplier must keep receipts, invoices, and other documents to ensure that it was certified in its origin country of origin. According to the USDA, these documents do not need to verify what farm they are from exactly, they only need to supply the physical documents. More often than not, companies and suppliers create fraud documents, which in turn exploit the system in place. The lack of control and being able to monitor a product if it’s truly organic or not undermines hard-working organic producers and farmers, and allows inorganic products to be labeled as organic. In the TestSharing database, we are constantly testing different types of inorganic and organic products. So far we have received interesting, and sometimes surprising, results! Specifically, we tested Certified Organic cranberries, and commercial non-organic cranberries. The Certified Organic cranberries came back with high results of pesticides, while the commercial non-organic cranberries came back with no pesticide residues what so ever. Take a look at these lab results in our app to see for yourself!

The loopholes, flaws, and criticisms within the FDA and the USDA are genuine concerns for the health and safety of consumers. One of our goals at TestSharing is to spread awareness on the flaws of the regulatory systems, and to start a movement that calls on these agencies to take action. Is it now the consumer's responsibility to hold the government accountable? The systems in place needs to be reconstructed with integrity, as well as credibility. Giving consumers complete transparency needs to be included in the many intentions behind the agencies that control the regulatory system.