The Food Safety System: Context and Current Status

Since humans began farming, agriculture has evolved rapidly, with pervasive effects on society. An example is the industrialization of food production in the twentieth century, which, among other things, dramatically changed perceptions and behaviors related to food (Hennessy et al., 2003). While this revolution in food production resulted in great benefits to today’s consumers and the ability to feed a growing population, it also resulted in unanticipated foodborne risks.

Changes in the Food Production Landscape

In addition to constant changes in food production and substantial growth in the number of food facilities (the number regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA] grew by 10 percent between 2003 and 2007 [GAO, 2008a]), the food and agriculture sector has experienced widespread integration and consolidation in recent years. For example, the consolidation of supermarkets has changed the retail grocery landscape in the United States, leading to the dominance of the industry by a small number of large companies.

The Signing of International Trade Agreements

In the wake of the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 and the signing of the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, countries are obliged to follow some basic rules in the application of food safety measures and plant and animal regulations. Countries can set their own standards for safety, but those standards must be based on science.

Limits on food safety

In examining how to improve a food safety system, one must acknowledge that foodborne illness cannot be completely eliminated. Many factors affect the degree of safety that is achievable, some related to the state of science and others to human factors, such as economic considerations and people’s desire to enjoy certain foods whose safety cannot be ensured (e.g., raw milk). The degree of food safety that is attainable also depends on management and oversight practices, on costs versus benefits, and on such factors as regulatory limits, public perceptions, consumer education and responsibility, and public communication.


Although the FDA’s role in ensuring safe food needs to be reviewed in the context of the U.S. national food safety system, for brevity the discussion in this section is limited to information that pertains to the FDA and is needed as context for the remainder of this report. Previous reports have reviewed the food safety system in the United States

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