Who keeps our food supply safe?
Rules, regulations, jurisdiction
By Diane Wright Hirsch
Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety
I am often asked who to contact when someone has a concern about the regulation of our food supply. It might be a budding entrepreneur who needs to know which agency they need to contact to figure out which regulations they need to comply with. A consumer might want to report that they found something in a food product that shouldn’t be there (a piece of plastic, a rodent part) or they may suspect that an allergen is not properly labeled. A farmer might want to build a packing facility or commercial kitchen on their farm to increase the value of their food product with further processing. Processors may want me to act as a go-between in order to retain their anonymity while finding the answer to a question about regulation of their operation. Sometimes these questions relate to a Federal rule or regulation. There are many layers that can be tough to wade through.
Connecticut is rather unique in the food regulation department: we actually have three agencies that have primary responsibility or “jurisdiction over” food. Most states have one or two.
The Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH) Food Protection Program oversees regulations relating to foodservice operations: restaurants, caterers, temporary food events (fairs, community dinners), food trucks, and institutions such as college foodservice. The Program’s overall mission (as stated on their website), “is to reduce the risk of foodborne disease by ensuring reasonable protection from contaminated food and improving the sanitary condition of food establishments.”
The Program develops new and updates existing regulations. Recently, the Federal Model Food Code was adopted as the state’s food code. This allows for standardization with other states who follow that code—making it easier for businesses (i.e. Stop and Shop or Burger King) that have operations in many states to have similar rules to follow from state to state. Food Protection Program personnel train, certify and re-certify sanitarians in each local health district to ensure that foodservice operations in their jurisdictions are complying with the Connecticut food code. The local/city/district health departments carry out the actual inspection and regulation of the operations. All foodservice operations must be licensed. You can go to the website at www.ct.gov/dph, go to the A-Z menu and find both the Food Protection Program (under F) and a listing of all Local Health Department (under L). The phone number is (860) 509-7297.
The Food Protection Program is also responsible for monitoring complaints of foodborne illness and investigating outbreaks in collaboration with local health departments, the DPH Epidemiology Program, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). If you fear that you might have a foodborne illness you should contact either your local or the state health department.
The Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) “regulates all persons and businesses that manufacture or sell food products in the State in order to detect and prevent the distribution of adulterated, contaminated, or unsanitary food products,” according to the website.
The Foods Program employs food inspectors who are responsible for inspecting retail food operations (grocery stores; big box stores that have grocery store operations, such as Costco or Walmart; farm stands and other retail operations). They also inspect food manufacturers and food operations that transport or store food (distributors). Many of these operations are licensed by DCP, who administers licenses for food manufacturing establishments, bakeries, non-alcoholic beverages including cider, wholesale and retail frozen desserts and vending machines. They are involved in food recall implementation. If you have food safety concerns regarding a Connecticut food processor or retailer (including food products they are selling) or if you want to start a food manufacturing business, the DCP is the regulatory agency to contact. The exception to this is meat and poultry processors. All meat and poultry processing is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).
DPC’s website is www.ct.gov/dpc. Go to the “Programs and Services” tab and you will find the “Food Program” listed. Or call them at (860) 713-6160.
The third state agency with food safety responsibilities is the Connecticut Department of Agriculture (DoAg). Like the federal agency (USDA), the Department is involved in a variety of regulatory and marketing activities. If you have questions related to the products they regulate, you can give them a call at: 860-713-2500 or go to the website at www.ct.gov/doag.
Recently, the DoAg was given responsibility for implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule in Connecticut. This is an FDA rule addressing the safety of fresh produce grown on Connecticut farms. The agency also provides produce farmers with a voluntary third-party audit program, called GAP (Good Agricultural Practices): sometimes grocery stores or produce distributors will require farms they buy produce from to have a third-party audit. The Agency also addresses animals and animal health, including food animals; milk and cheese producers and processors; retail milk sales; and a programs for small poultry producers who want to process and sell their birds directly to consumers and restaurants. The Bureau of Aquaculture addresses the safety of the Connecticut clam and oyster industries via water testing, regulation and licensing programs.
Sometimes the regulatory jurisdictions of these three agencies cross paths. A grocery store may have DoAg inspectors looking at their dairy case; a local health inspector checking out their rotisserie chicken operation and a DCP inspector conducting a regular whole-store inspection all in one week. A farmer who wants to develop a jam and jelly processing kitchen on the farm may have to contact the local health department to ensure that their commercial kitchen meets town regulatory requirements before the DCP inspects the processing operation. The farm could be visited by a DoAg inspector who is making sure the farm complies with the Produce Safety Rule. This is why, at times, the regulation of food in Connecticut can be confusing. However, if you contact any of the agencies directly, they are able to direct you to the appropriate agency to handle your questions.
To add to this, there are also two agencies at the federal level who regulate food. The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) regulates all meat, poultry, and processed eggs. A few states have equivalent state inspection programs for these products, but Connecticut is not one of them. Therefore, anyone with questions about how meat and poultry is regulated or, if who wants to obtain a grant of inspection from FSIS (the only way you can legally process meat/poultry in Connecticut), must talk to the folks at FSIS. The best place to start is the web site at www.fsis.usda.gov. You may also contact the Philadelphia regional office (215) 597-4219.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates all foods that are not covered by FSIS. The enormity of the job is tempered by the fact that retail foods and foodservice are regulated by state food or public health agencies. In addition, the FDA may contract with state food and/or health agencies to carry out inspection programs for FDA regulated foods, including seafood, fresh juices, fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, and pretty much anything else. Check for the appropriate contacts on the web site, www.fda.gov. Click on the “Food” tab as FDA is responsible for pharmaceuticals, animal food, and many other health and food related areas. On the food landing page, there is information regarding how to contact the FDA directly.
For more information about regulation and food safety, visit our website at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu, check out some of the links in the article, or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-877-486-6271.