Thursday, July 25, 2019

Regulation of Food Products

Overview

Agriculture is a heavily regulated industry.  Land ownership; production activities; marketing of ag products; and food products that are in the consumer (and livestock) food supply are subject to federal and state regulations.  What are the major federal rules?  How do they apply to producers of food products?

The regulation of food products – it’s the topic of today’s post.

Overview

The government agencies with primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of the U.S. food supply are the USDA (through the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  While neither agency has the authority to mandate a recall of unsafe food, they have developed general oversight procedures and protocol for voluntary food recalls by private companies.  The USDA is generally responsible for the regulation of meat, poultry and certain egg products, while the FDA has responsibility for the regulation of all other food products including seafood, milk, grain products, fruits and vegetables, and certain canned, frozen and otherwise packaged foods that contain meat, poultry and eggs that USDA does not otherwise regulate.

Food Adulteration and Misbranding

The regulations generally proscribe the adulteration and misbranding of food.  In general, a food is considered adulterated if it contains a harmful substance that may pose a safety risk, contains an added harmful substance that is acquired during production or cannot be reasonably avoided, contains a unapproved substance that has been intentionally added to the food, or if it has been handled under unsanitary conditions that presents a risk of contamination that may pose a safety threat.  Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) (21 U.S.C. §§ 301-399), the manufacture, delivery, receipt or introduction of adulterated food into interstate commerce is prohibited. However, the USDA regulations did not prevent the introduction into the human food chain of meat from downed livestock.  In Baur v. Veneman, 352 F.3d 625 (2d Cir. 2003), a beef consumer argued that the USDA should label all downed livestock as “adulterated,” and that the consumption of meat from downed animals created a serious health risk of disease transmission and that elimination of downed cattle from the human food stream was necessary to protect the public health.  In late 2003, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the beef consumer had standing to challenge the USDA policy.  Shortly thereafter, the presence of “Mad-Cow” disease was discovered in the U.S., and the USDA announced on December 30, 2003, that it was changing its regulations to ban the meat from downed animals from the human food chain. FSIS issued a series of three interim rules in early 2004.  The final rule is effective October 1, 2007, and prohibits the slaughter of non-ambulatory cattle in the United States (except that veal calves that cannot stand due to fatigue or cold weather may be set apart and held for treatment and re-inspection). 72 Fed. Reg. 38699 (July 13, 2007). Also, the final rule specifies that spinal cord must be removed from cattle 30 months of age and older at the place of slaughter, and that records must be maintained when beef products containing specific risk materials are moved from one federally inspected establishment to another for further processing.  Under the final rule, countries that have received the internationally recognized BSE status of “negligible risk” are not required to remove specific risk materials.

While neither the USDA nor the FDA can order a private company to recall unsafe food products, they can issue warning letters, create adverse publicity, seize unsafe food products, seek an injunction or begin prosecuting criminal proceedings. 

For food products over which the FSIS has jurisdiction, upon learning that a misbranded or adulterated food item may have entered commerce, the FSIS will conduct a preliminary investigation to determine whether a voluntary recall is warranted.  If a recall is deemed necessary, a determination is made as to the degree of the recall and the public is notified.  For food products subject to the FDA’s jurisdiction, a similar procedure is utilized.

Organic Foods

Organic foods are produced according to certain production standards.  For crops, “organic” generally means they were grown without the use of conventional pesticides, artificial fertilizers, human waste, or sewage sludge, and that they were processed without ionizing radiation or food additives.  For animals, “organic” generally means they were raised without the use of antibiotics and without the use of growth hormones.  In most countries, organic produce must not be genetically modified.

Historically, organic farms have been relatively small family-run farms with organic food products only available in small stores or farmers' markets.  More recently, organic foods have become much more widely available, and organic food sales within the United States have grown by 17 to 20 percent a year in recent years while sales of conventional food have grown at only about 2 to 3 percent annually.  This large growth is predicted to continue, and many companies (including Wal-Mart) are beginning to sell organic food products.

An organic food producer must obtain certification in order to market food as organic.  Under the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 (7 U.S.C. §§ 6501-23), the USDA is required to develop national standards for organic products.  USDA regulations are enforced through the National Organic Program (NOP) governing the manufacturing and handling of organic food products.  As enacted, the statute provides that an agricultural product must be produced and handled without the use of synthetic substances in order to be labeled or sold as “organic”.  But, under USDA regulations, a “USDA Organic” seal can be placed on products with at least 95% organic ingredients.  The 95 percent rule was challenged by a Maine organic blueberry farmer as being overly tolerant of non-organic substances and inconsistent with the statute, and the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit agreed, invalidated several of the regulations while scaling back the scope of other regulations.  Harvey v. Veneman, 396 F.3d 28 (1st Cir. 2005).  In response to the court’s opinion (and while the case was on appeal) the Congress amended OFPA.  Upon further review, the court determined that OFPA, as amended, permitted the use of synthetics as both ingredients in and processing aids to organic food. Harvey v. Johanns, 494 F.3d 237 (1st Cir. 2007).

Produce Safety Rule

In early 2011, the President signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2010.  21 U.S.C. §301, et seq. The FMSA gives the FDA expansive power to regulate the food supply, including the ability to establish standards for the harvesting of produce and preventative control for food production businesses. Beginning in 2018, the new rules will significantly impact many growers and handlers of fresh produce.

The FMSA also gives the FDA greater authority to restrict imports and conduct inspections of domestic and foreign food facilities. To implement the requirements of the FMSA, the FDA had to prepare in excess of 50 rules, guidance documents, reports under a short time constraint.  Indeed, the timeframe was so short FDA complained that they didn’t have enough time to do the job appropriately. That led to lawsuits being filed by activist groups to compel the FDA to issue several rules that were past-due. A federal court agreed with the activists in the spring of 2013 and, as a result, the FDA issued four proposed rules with comment periods that ended in November of 2013. Center for Food Safety v. Hamburg, 954 F. Supp. 2d 965 (N.D. Cal. 2013).  One of the most contentious issues involved the rule FDA was supposed to develop involving intentional adulteration of food. FDA said it needed two more years to develop an appropriate rule, but the Court ordered them to develop it immediately. The hope, at that time, was that the Congress would step in and modify the deadlines imposed on the FDA so that reasonable rules could be developed rather than being simply rushed through the regulatory process for the sake of meeting an arbitrary deadline.

In late 2015, the FDA issued its Final Produce Safety Rule that has application to growers and fresh produce handlers (those that pack and store fresh produce). The rule is designed to reduce the instances of foodborne illnesses. Effective, January 16, 2016, the rule generally covers the use of manure or compost as fertilizer, allowing (at least for the present time) a 90 to120-day waiting period between the application of untreated manure on land and the time of harvest. That timeframe is in accordance with USDA National Organic Program Standards. Relatedly, the rule requires that raw manure and untreated biological soil amendments of animal origin must be applied without contacting produce and post-application contact must be minimized. Also, the rule addresses water quality and establishes testing for water that is used on the farm such as for irrigation or handwashing purposes. Under the rule, there must be no detectible generic E coli in water that has the potential to contact produce. The rule establishes a timeframe for noncompliant growers to come into compliance with the water requirements. The rule also addresses scenarios that could involve contamination of food products by animals, both domestic and wild, and establishes standards for equipment, tools and hygiene. As for potential contamination by wild animals, the rule requires farmers to monitor growing areas for potential contamination by animals and not harvest produce that has likely been contaminated. In addition, the rule establishes requirements for worker training, health and hygiene, and particular rules for farms that grow sprouts.

Under the rule, farms that sell an average of $25,000 or less of produce over the prior three years are exempt. Similarly, exempt are farms (of any size) whose production is limited exclusively to food products that are cooked or processed before human consumption. For producers whose overall food sales average less than $500,000 annually over the prior three years where the majority of the sales are directly to consumers or local restaurants or retail establishments, a limited exemption from the rule can apply. However, these producers must maintain certain required documentation (effective Jan. 16, 2016) and disclose on the product label at the time the product is purchased the name and location of the farm where the food product originated. In addition, the rule also allows commercial buyers to require that the farms from which they purchase produce follow the rule on their own accord.

Conclusion

Food products – yet another aspect of agriculture that is substantially regulated.

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