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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

For Consumers

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Cooperative Programs Help Keep Food Safe

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PDF of this article including a photo of milk jug, bag of groceries, clams, and a waitress with bread on a tray.

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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring that the food we eat is safe. Whether it’s cereal on the grocery store shelf, salad served in a restaurant, milk sold in a school cafeteria, or oysters offered on a raw bar, the American public expects that food will be safe and not cause illness.

FDA regulates about 80 percent of the country’s food supply—everything except certain meats, poultry, and egg products, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But FDA can’t be in every grocery store, restaurant, school cafeteria, milk plant, or shellfish plant. So the job of protecting the nation’s food supply is a cooperative effort between FDA and more than 3,000 state, local, tribal, and territorial health and regulatory organizations throughout the United States.

The Programs

FDA and state/local regulatory agencies work together to protect consumers from foodborne illness through three cooperative programs authorized by the U.S. Public Health Service Act:

  • retail food
  • milk
  • shellfish

“Each of the three programs is unique in how it handles the different food commodities,” says Larry Stringer, director of state programs in FDA’s Central Region. “Although they each have their own strategies, the programs are administered in a similar way to ensure that three major industries have the food safety standards in place to protect public health.”

The responsibility and authority for regulating retail and foodservice establishments, milk plants and dairy farms, and shellfish plants and growing waters lie primarily with state and local governments. Officials at these government levels inspect these food facilities, license establishments, issue permits, and enforce the laws and regulations.

“Through the cooperative programs, FDA assists the state and local programs,” says Kevin Smith, director of FDA’s retail food and cooperative programs coordination staff. “We help the state and local programs do their job better by providing guidance, training, certification, and other technical assistance.”

“The cooperative programs work very well,” says Charlene Bruce, director of food protection for the Mississippi State Department of Health. “They help us to leverage our resources, and our interaction with FDA helps us keep abreast of current food protection issues and new requirements through guidance, standards, and the food code.”

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The Experts

About 55 FDA experts known as regional retail food, milk, and shellfish specialists work in the cooperative programs on varied tasks, such as

  • working with state and local officials to improve their supermarket and restaurant inspections
  • auditing state dairy personnel as they inspect dairy plants to ensure that they are citing the required sanitation standards
  • patrolling waters with state authorities for illegal shellfish harvesting
  • training and certifying state officials on the use of FDA model codes and ordinances, sets of recommendations to help guide food regulatory agencies in establishing uniform standards and regulations for food safety in their own states
  • appearing before local government councils to promote the adoption of the latest version of FDA’s model codes and ordinances

FDA regional specialists work within the agency’s five geographic regions (Northeast, Southeast, Central, Southwest, and Pacific), with each specialist responsible for a cluster of states in that region.

“Just like those at the state and local levels, our people are incredibly dedicated,” says Richard Barnes, director of FDA’s Division of Federal–State Relations. “They are called specialists for a reason. They understand the cooperative programs from a national scope down to the local level, and how FDA’s model codes and ordinances apply to local laws.”

About 25,000 state and local officials conduct more than two million inspections of food facilities each year across the country. “The specialists have to address questions from all of these people in the different jurisdictions,” says Barnes. “They are educators, they are trainers, they are people who understand enforcement and program development—they wear a lot of hats.”

One hat is that of an environmental health specialist. Aside from their day-to-day work, FDA regional specialists may be deployed to devastated areas in the aftermath of hurricanes, floods, and other disasters to help start up safe food production. “Today I’m a milk specialist,” says FDA’s Tim Roddy, “and tomorrow I may be a milk specialist. But if I go to a flooded area, I become an environmental health specialist, which means I can inspect a restaurant, run a solid waste site, check the wells, or be part of a team that would oversee the public water supply start-up.”

In addition to the regional specialists, the cooperative programs rely on numerous FDA food safety experts to develop and implement policies and programs. These experts contribute to the cooperative programs through tasks such as

  • developing and interpreting the model codes, ordinances, and other guidance documents that address the prevention and control of foodborne illness
  • identifying research needs to address emerging food safety concerns
  • training and standardizing FDA regional specialists who, in turn, train and certify state and local personnel in sanitation and other food safety issues
  • maintaining national listings of firms that meet program requirements

Beyond their customary work in the cooperative programs, FDA food safety experts and regional specialists may also be called upon to ensure the safety of food served at events of national significance, such as

  • national political conventions
  • presidential inauguration activities
  • U.S.-based Olympic games
  • U.S.-hosted summits of world leaders

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The Conferences

A national conference for each cooperative program brings together representatives from all levels of government, the food industry, the academic community, and consumer organizations to address emerging food safety problems. The conferences work toward developing science-based procedures and best practices for food regulatory agencies and industry to follow. The national conferences are

  • Conference for Food Protection
  • National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments
  • Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference

“The conferences represent the formal agreement between FDA and the state and local regulatory entities,” says Richard Barnes, director of FDA’s Division of Federal–State Relations. The model codes, ordinances, and related documents that guide the cooperative programs emerge from these conferences, he adds. “So not only are the programs cooperatively run, but the guidance is cooperatively developed.”

This article appears on FDA's Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.

Date Posted: September 30, 2009

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