The History of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the third in a four-part series profiling the history, structure and purpose of consumer protection agencies in the United States, including the CPSC, FDA, USDA and NHTSA.
We get a general idea of the scope of services covered by the USDA’s current mission and vision statements 1.
Mission: We provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound policy, the best available science, and efficient management.
Vision: We want to be recognized as a dynamic organization that is able to efficiently provide the integrated program delivery needed to lead a rapidly evolving food and agriculture system.
Today the USDA is responsible for a broad range of services relating to agriculture and rural interests. USDA agencies include:
- Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS)
- Agricultural Research Service (ARS)
- Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)
- Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP)
- Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES)
- Economic Research Service (ERS)
- Farm Service Agency (FSA)
- Food and Nutrition Service (FNS)
- Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)
- Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS)
- Forest Service (FS)
- Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA)
- National Agricultural Library (NAL)
- National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS)
- Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)
- Risk Management Agency (RMA)
- Rural Development (RD)
USDA Offices are also described on their website near the bottom of the page. USDA Rural Services also offers grants for research and areas of interest that support the mission and vision of USDA.
One important department listed above, the FSIS2, focuses on food inspection services. Its mission states:
“The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was established in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln. While there was no formal agency from which the USDA was an outgrowth, in 1820 and 1825 the U.S House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, respectively, established Agriculture Committees3.
During the latter half of the 1800s the railroads expanded rapidly across the US and its territories. As technology progressed, refrigerated cars and electricity made it possible for the meat packing industry to become a year-round business4.
By 1865 imported animals had long been identified to be a source of diseased livestock, prompting the USDA Secretary to pressure Congress to pass an act providing quarantine of imported animals. Although the act was passed, Congress gave authority to quarantine to the Treasure Department, who did little to provide the intended protection. Diseased animals continued to be brought into the country.
Consequently, as states attempted to enforce their own regulations, inconsistencies between states’ requirements created additional problems. Not only were they enforced erratically, but, states resented each other’s quarantines. This prompted veterinarians and ranchers to push for a nationally regulated solution. In 1886 the Supreme Court ruled in the Wabash case that only the federal government could regulate interstate commerce. In 1887, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act5.
In 1884 the President signed an act that established the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI) within the USDA to prevent diseased animals from being used in food and food products. The BAI was the predecessor to the FSIS. By August the US Treasury department transferred their quarantine stations to the BAI. In time, foreign markets began placing restrictions on U.S. food exports, prompting the 1890 Food Inspection Act.
Upton Sinclair’s 1905 book, The Jungle described the conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking houses with such gruesome detail that he gained widespread public support in urging President Theodore Roosevelt to place government inspectors on the premises. Details covered horrible working conditions and brutal treatment of workers and the filthy conditions affecting both workers and meat products destined for American consumers. In 1906 the Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act were passed.
At this point the USDA oversaw the Bureau of Chemistry and the BAI. Enforcement of the Food and Drugs Act fell to the Bureau of Chemistry (the predecessor of the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA,) and the Meat Inspection Act to the BAI. By 1912 the BAI also began inspecting eggs intended for use by the Navy. But, no one inspected eggs for use by the general public, or other branches of the military or other federal agencies at that time. While in underwent many transformations, the, now renamed, Food and Drug Administration FDA) was transferred in 1940 to the predecessor of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), which eventually was renamed the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS.)
After World War II, with the rapidly developing U.S. Highway system and shift in transportation to refrigerated trucks, it became more economical to move packing houses found to rural areas. In the 1950s the USDA was reorganized under President Dwight Eisenhower, who eliminated the BAI and other divisions, and created the Agriculture Research Service (ARS) to assume their responsibilities. The Poultry Products Inspection Act was passed answering the need for inspections within rapidly growing poultry production industry.
During the 1950s and 1960s the focus on consumer protection and safety shifted from contaminated meat and food products to mislabeling and adulteration from chemical additives. At that time, food inspections consisted primarily of looking for visible contamination. Most of the newer concerns were the results of progress-new kinds of products, complex processing methods, increased volume. Many of the concerns focused on pesticides, residues of drugs given to animals, and preservatives. The 1958 Food Additive Amendment was passed to address safety concerning these issues.
As the complexity of production and marketing continued to increase during the 1960s, more laws were passed along with reorganization of the departments under the USDA. The Wholesome Meat Act, 1967, required the states to assume meat inspection responsibilities, previously delegated to the federal government under the Federal Meat Inspection Act. By 1968 the poultry and meat inspection programs had merged and were now under the USDA’s Agriculture and Research Service.
After a few more transformations, by 1972 the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service had been created and revised for the purpose of assuming the regulatory responsibilities of the Agriculture and Research Service. These responsibilities were again transferred, in 1977 to the newly created Food Safety and Quality Service, which, in turn, became the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in 1981.
In 1993, almost 35 years after science proved we had the technology send astronauts to the moon, an outbreak of E.coli killed four people and made another 400 sick, exposing the archaic inspection methods used to ensure safety in meat products. Science wasn’t being applied evenly across all government agencies.
Sadly, Americans, relying on inspection regulations and our government’s assurance that they will keep our food supply safe, have been trusting individual agent’s ability (and commitment) to see, feel or smell toxic contaminants in our foods, when accurate and inexpensive testing methods had been available for many years. It takes only seconds to streak a Petri dish, just four to 48 hours to see growth on those dishes, and only a couple minutes to identify that growth. Anyone who has taken a microbiology class can do this.
It took that horrible incident to get the FSIS to use more scientific methods to inspect foods. Although it took until July 1996, the FSIS finally issued the Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Systems-a rule intended to reduce microbial pathogens in raw products. This rule would hold industry accountable for producing safe food, would hold the government responsible for establishing safe food standards and maintaining oversight and enforcement of these standards. It still took until January 1997 to begin implementation of this rule and until January 2000 to complete that implementation. But, it did reduce the number of bacterial food-borne illnesses in 6,500 federally-inspected, and 2,550 state-inspected meat and poultry slaughter and packing plants3.
In the first months of 2004 the U.S. underwent the first of several scares. Mad Cow Disease, officially bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), led to a long and intense investigation the ultimately led to the destruction of 255 animals suspected of being at-risk, but ultimately tested negative for BSE. While 17 deaths were attributed to and outbreak of Mad Cow disease from attendees at a New Jersey race track, reporters “overlooked” the fact that these deaths took place over a nine-year period, making them a one in a million occurrence. Scientific lab data later showed that none of these cases were related either to BSE or to one another. Never-the-less, the Mad Cow Disease Scare didn’t die down until late in the first half of 2006 (6).
Barely had the flurry about Mad Cow Disease settled down when, in 2005 the Bird Flu7 arrived in time to continue the fear. People had begun to believe that they could contract Bird Flu by eating chicken8. The usual common knowledge, that fully cooking poultry at the proper temperatures would destroy the virus, seemed to have flown the coop.
On a more amusing note, on June 15, 2005 the Chicago Tribune printed an article informing us that the USDA had officially declared French fries to be “fresh produce.” It also added batter-coated and frozen fries to this list of “fresh produce9.”
Despite over 145 years of efforts to prevent unsafe foods from reaching consumers, we’ve seen a number of recalls recently for various violations. Tyson Foods, in December 2007, had its FSIS approval to use the phrase “Raised without antibiotics that impact human antibiotic resistance” on its labels rescinded when FSIS learned that Tyson routinely used the antibiotic Gentamicin preventatively in their chicks10.
In February 2008, there was national uproar when Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co., from Chino, California recalled over 143,300,000 pounds of raw and frozen meat products. The FSIS determined that the company “did not consistently contact the FSIS public health veterinarian in situations in which cattle became non-ambulatory after passing ante-mortem inspection, which is not compliant with FSIS regulations.” The FSIS rated it as a Class II Recall, which has a low health risk. This case gained widespread notoriety after video showing the abuse of the cattle was made public on YouTube11.
These are only two of numerous reports of recalls and violations of regulations. Recently there was a warning of salmonella contamination of raw tomatoes12, so the need for inspections continues. What is sad is that the need continues, whether it’s from accidental contamination, or from workers who care nothing about the animals or consumers affected, or corporations who merely want to eek every dollar from their operations.
As for the current salmonella scare reporting outbreaks in 16 states, Dr. Isadore Rosenfeld, on FOX News, 6/8/08 says, “This week it’s tomatoes, next week it’ll be beef.” He says salmonella13,14 is a common contaminant, and, when choosing tomatoes, to avoid those with breaks in the skin, bruised spots, and wash them thoroughly. Salmonella usually doesn’t need to be treated, and will usually resolve in 2-3 days by itself. If it needs to be treated, get it treated. As of June 8, 2008, the FDA reports 143 cases of Salmonellosis, with 23 hospitalizations, since April, associated with certain types of tomatoes12. According to the FDA, “…preliminary data suggest that raw red plum, raw red Roma, or raw round red tomatoes are the cause.14” The FDA considers cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, tomatoes sold with the vine still attached, and home grown tomatoes to be safe. The FDA also lists several states14 whose tomatoes are NOT associated with the Salmonella outbreak, and considers all tomatoes grown in these states safe to eat.
Fight Bac is a site for Partnership for Food Safety Education, with tips for handling food, activities for kids, research and other good information. FoodSafety.gov offers a broad range of information such as safety alerts, food-borne pathogens, a link to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, links to photos and videos, and a link to reporting illnesses and filing complaints.
For access to the U.S. Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) go to http://www.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/cfrassemble.cgi?title=200607
To review the USDA Laws and Regulations go to http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/!ut/p/_s.7_0_A/7_0_1OB?navtype=SU&navid=LAWS_REGS
To contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or to file a complaint, either go to
or write them at:
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, DC 20250
1 USDA Mission and Vision statements: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/!ut/p/_s.7_0_A/7_0_1OB?parentnav=ABOUT_USDA&navid=MISSION_STATEMENT&navtype=RT
2 FSIS: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/About_FSIS/index.asp
3 USDA History: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/About_FSIS/Agency_History/index.asp
4 Refrigeration and commerce: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/About_FSIS/Agency_History/index.asp
5 Wabash case and Interstate Commerce Act: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5746/
6 Mad Cow Disease: http://www.consumerfreedom.com/news_detail.cfm/headline/2500
7 Bird Flu: http://www.consumerfreedom.com/pressRelease_detail.cfm/release/128
8 Contracting Bird Flu: http://www.consumerfreedom.com/pressRelease_detail.cfm/release/2913
9 French Fries Declared Fresh Veggies: http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-7586656_ITM
10 Tyson Foods: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/NR_060308_01/index.asp
11 Hallmark/Westland Video: http://youtube.com/watch?v=kaM7Hpu47FY&feature=related
12 Raw Tomatoes and Salmonella Contaminations: http://www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/tomatoes.html
13 Salmonella Wikipedia Description: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salmonella
14 Salmonella USDA Description: http://www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/tomatoes.html
15 Condensed History of American Agriculture, 1776-1999: http://www.usda.gov/news/pubs/99arp/timeline.pdf