Strong science underpins everything FDA does. The scientific discipline of toxicology is particularly essential to FDA’s mission and is crucial to the Agency’s ability to evaluate product safety and reach sound regulatory decisions.
On this page:
- Measurement and Analysis Using Current Laboratory Methods
- Scientific Methods Development
- Original Scientific Research
- Risk and Safety Assessments
- Monitoring Programs and Information Gathering Efforts
- Collaborative Research and Training Efforts
- Job Opportunities
FDA is a science based public health and regulatory agency responsible for ensuring the safety and proper labeling of foods (including dietary supplements) in the U.S. marketplace. To meet these responsibilities FDA invests significant resources in measurement and analysis, scientific methods development, original scientific research, reference database development, bioinformatics, risk analysis, and other science based activities. The work might be conducted at the lab bench, “in the field” at various geographic locations, using computer assisted computational analyses, or through surveys. Areas of investigation include but are not limited to microbiological, genomic, toxicological, and chemical research designed to evaluate the safety of products and to improve food safety practices in agricultural operations, aquaculture operations, and food processing facilities. FDA also conducts behavioral research to better understand consumers’ food safety practices in the home and how they respond to nutrition and health information presented on food labels.
Below you will find descriptions of different types of food related science and research activities FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) is engaged in and the activities’ applications to positive public health outcomes.
The laws and regulations that FDA is responsible for enforcing, and to which food manufacturers must adhere, often necessitate measuring and analyzing food products, food packaging materials, or the environments in which foods are grown, packed, or processed. These measurements and analyses are used to:
- check the values that appear on the Nutrition Facts Label and Supplement Facts Label;
- ensure that food packaging is made of materials that are understood to be safe;
- test for potentially harmful levels of chemicals in foods;
- test for the presence of foodborne pathogens or unintended allergens in a food or food processing environment;
- evaluate the effectiveness of preventive controls designed to ensure food safety; and
- provide other information that can be used to help ensure the public health.
Some of the methods used by FDA to help ensure food safety are available on FDA's laboratory methods web page. These methods may be utilized by other public health agencies, laboratories, and the food industry as well.
There are times when FDA needs to test a product for a particular contaminant but a validated method to test for the contaminant in that product has not been established. In these instances, FDA scientists must develop and validate a method that can detect and measure the presence and/or quantity of the contaminant in the food product of interest. When FDA does this it typically publishes the new method in a peer-reviewed journal so interested parties understand how FDA conducted its analysis and other researchers can use and adapt the method. Examples of new or modified methods developed by FDA include tests to detect and/or measure: color additives in foods, Listeria in ice cream, trans fats in oils, melamine in infant formula and other foods, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in seafood as a result of oil spills, etc.
Better understand genetically engineered foods (GMOs)
The importance of science in FDA’s foods program goes beyond basic measurement and analysis. It involves applying established scientific principles and methods to better understand factors that impact food safety and nutrition. The specific issue FDA seeks to address may vary but inevitably FDA must: identify the variables believed to impact a particular public health concern; gather information about those variables using validated research methods; perform analyses to determine the impact of the variables; and assimilate the information so it can be used by FDA and others to help achieve positive public health outcomes.
Examples of research FDA has conducted include but are not limited to:
- determining if the outflow from waste water treatment plants impacts existing commercial shellfish beds;
- better understanding the persistence of foodborne pathogens in the environment and what it means for produce growing practices;
- gathering data on how consumers interpret the information on food labels and how it influences consumers’ food choices;
- understanding the source of processing-induced contaminants in foods;
- assessing components of dietary supplements;
- predicting the effectiveness of interventions or control measures to mitigate specific food safety problems;
- using whole genome sequencing to better understand the relatedness of foodborne pathogens and the routes of contamination that result in foodborne illness outbreaks;
- using DNA to identify live microbial ingredients in foods and dietary supplements; and
- using DNA as a tool to properly identify and label seafood.
The findings from these efforts are invaluable in maximizing the effectiveness of food safety practices and improving the labeling and nutrition information provided to consumers. FDA makes the results of its work available via peer reviewed journals and/or its website so other public health officials, researchers, and members of industry can also use the information.
In the case of whole genome sequencing of foodborne pathogens, FDA and its public health partners have been building GenomeTrakr, which includes a global network of laboratories and a publicly accessible reference database of genomic information and geographic information from foodborne pathogen isolates. Public health officials and industry members can use the database to speed investigations of foodborne illness outbreaks and food contamination events, ultimately reducing illnesses and deaths. Likewise, FDA is building a reference database of DNA sequences from commercial seafood species. This database is also publicly accessible and can be used by public health officials and members of industry to help confirm whether seafood is properly identified on its label.
- Consumer Behavior Research
- DNA-based Seafood Identification
- Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) Program
As the nation’s food supply becomes more global and complex, decisions about policies intended to prevent contamination and foodborne illness often involve more variables than decisions made in years past. Some of this is due to changes in how food is processed, some is due to the fact that with global trade there is greater variation across crop growing environments and food production operations, and some is due to scientific advances that have allowed us to better understand the factors that impact food safety. To make effective policy decisions that protect the public health, FDA needs to understand the relative risks posed by foodborne pathogens, chemical contaminants, chemical and microbial toxins, changes in nutrient intake, and other health concerns. It must also understand the likely public health impact of different strategies to mitigate these risks.
To accomplish this FDA conducts risk assessments and safety assessments. These assessments use a scientific approach to understand and to quantify specific food safety risks. For risk assessments, FDA develops mathematical models and other tools that simulate a microbial or chemical food safety problem, integrating the many factors that contribute to it. These factors can include: characteristics of the microbes, chemicals, or other toxins involved; characteristics of the foods being impacted; production and handling practices related to the food; the level of exposure to the contaminant; the human body’s biological response to the contaminant, etc. For safety assessments, FDA analyzes existing studies to calculate the levels of contaminants that are likely to cause harm. Once a risk is assessed FDA can use that information to prioritize the risk against other public health risks and to determine and implement effective risk management strategies designed to reduce the likelihood of illness or injury.
Completed risk assessments, safety assessments, and other information related to risk analyses can be found on the FDA foods program's risk and safety assessment web page.
FDA is also engaged in a number of efforts to gather information about the foods U.S. consumers eat. Some of these are on-going monitoring programs such as the Total Diet Study and the Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program, and some are long term studies to look at food safety practices in the food service environment, such as the Retail Food Risk Factor Study. FDA may also conduct targeted testing to look for the presence of certain contaminants in foods. Below are links where you can find more information about some of these monitoring programs and information gathering efforts.
FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition also supports four Centers of Excellence which provide research and capacity building that addresses timely, cutting-edge issues related to food safety. Each Center of Excellence has a different focus and provides information and expertise that complement the positive public health outcomes FDA is striving to achieve.
The Centers of Excellence are the:
- Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, at the University of Maryland
Specializing in developing and providing international food safety training programs.
- National Center for Food Safety and Technology, at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute for Food Safety and Health
Specializing in food processing research.
- National Center for Natural Products Research, at the University of Mississippi
Specializing in research related to the safety and adulteration of dietary supplements.
- The Western Center for Food Safety, at the University of California, Davis
Specializing in produce safety research.
More information on the research and capacity building conducted by the Centers of Excellence can be found in the 2021-2022 CFSAN Centers of Excellence Annual Report (PDF 3.3MB).
FDA's resources for students and teachers include a science curriculum for middle and high school students, help for students writing a school report, and more.
FDA food researchers regularly publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals and author chapters in books. Below you will find lists of their publications and a link that will let you search for specific publications.
- CFSAN Science Publications – 2019
- CFSAN Science Publications – 2018
- CFSAN Science Publications – 2017
- CFSAN Science Publications – 2016
- Search for specific publications by CFSAN researchers or subject matter experts
- Bad Bug Book (Second Edition)
The Bad Bug Book provides current information about the major known agents that cause foodborne illness.
- CFSAN Technical Lexicon
Download the CFSAN Technical Lexicon to add technical terms to your word processing dictionary.
- FDA-iRISK 4.2
A web-based system designed to analyze data concerning microbial and chemical hazards in food and return an estimate of the resulting health burden on a population level.
- Reference Standard Sequence Library (RSSL) for Seafood Identification
A searchable library of DNA reference sequences for many species of seafood. The DNA sequences can be used in conjunction with The Seafood List to assist with the proper labeling and HACCP assessment of seafood products intended for the U.S. market.
- Jobs at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
- FDA Science Careers and Scientific Professional Development
- FDA ORISE Research Participation Program
More on Science and Research
- Science and Research Across FDA
- CFSAN Bioresearch Monitoring Program
- CFSAN Technical Lexicon
- FDA Poisonous Plant Database