Does “USDA Inspected” Really Mean The Food Is Safe?

USDA Inspection SealPreviously I assumed that if a package of hamburger meat that I purchased from a local grocery store bared the USDA Inspection Stamp on it, that meant that it was inspected, tested, and found to be safe for me to eat by the U.S. Government. How absurd of me to think that the United States Department of Agriculture “Seal of Approval” actually meant anything concerning food safety.

But wait, could I actually have been wrong all these years? Let’s take a deeper look for a moment at the USDA.

What does eHow say about the purpose of the USDA? “The primary purpose of the USDA is to make sure that all American food that is manufactured and consumed is safe, nutritious and sustainable“. Hmm, yea, that makes me think that they are concerned with the safety of my food.

Well, lets take a look at the Mission Statement of the USDA itself. Lets go to the USDA website and look at the About USDA page and see what their Mission Statement says their purpose is. Hmm, that’s interesting, their Mission Statement is no longer found on their About USDA page. Lets search a little deeper to find it.

Ahh, here it is. “We provide leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, and related issues based on sound public policy, the best available science, and efficient management“. But wait, I didn’t see anything mentioning food safety there.

Maybe its farther down in their Vision Statement . . . “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“. That’s interesting, still no mention of food safety there either.

Well, maybe its farther down in their Strategic Plan Framework. “USDA has created a strategic plan to implement its vision. The framework of this plan depends on these key activities: expanding markets for agricultural products and support international economic development, further developing alternative markets for agricultural products and activities, providing financing needed to help expand job opportunities and improve housing, utilities and infrastructure in rural America, enhancing food safety by taking steps to reduce the prevalence of foodborne hazards from farm to table, improving nutrition and health by providing food assistance and nutrition education and promotion, and managing and protecting America’s public and private lands working cooperatively with other levels of government and the private sector”.

There it is, I knew the USDA was watching out for me by inspecting my food. They even set up a branch devoted to doing just that called the Food Safety Inspection Service. Well, lets see what it is that they do. MISSION STATEMENT: 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“.

Great, so the FSIS is the one that is actually inspecting the meat that I purchase to make sure that it is safe for me. So if the meat I buy bears the USDA Inspected seal, that means it has been inspected and found to be free of biological pathogens that could kill me if I eat it? Not necessarily.

According to the FSIS, E. coli is only considered an adulterant when it is found in boneless trimmings and ground beef. So if half a side of beef hanging in a processing plant waiting to be packaged and sold to butchers and grocery stores for further processing is tested and found to be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 , that’s considered o.k. because the bones are still present. The FSIS considers this to be merely a relatively harmless contaminant. This is completely ludicrous.

The FSIS believes that its up to the local butcher, restaurants, and grocery stores downstream that are further processing the meat to test for the deadly E. coli bacteria and other deadly pathogens at their own expense, and not that of the USDA inspectors at the slaughter houses.

Ok, so if the downstream processors have to do the inspecting and certifying themselves and then assume all financial responsibility when a foodborne illness outbreak occurs from meat that was “inspected” and approved by the USDA/FSIS, what good is having the “USDA Inspected” seal on the meat in the first place? To me, that is giving us a false sense of security in the safety of our food.

Sounds to me like the FDA and FSIS are simply trying to “pass the buck” off to downstream processors instead of doing the job that they are supposed to be doing themselves. If this is the case, then what good is it doing any of us in having the FSIS anyway?

Before you know it FSIS will start requiring consumers to start testing the ground beef they purchase at the grocery store before they can cook and consume it, and start holding consumers that don’t test their food responsible if they get sick from deadly bacteria present in the meat.

I for one am ready for a complete revamp of our food safety system. The USDA, FSIS, CDC, and FDA are all trying to do their own thing in making sure that our food is safe, yet how safe is it? I think it is about time that a separate entity assume control and responsibility for assuring the safety of our food. A U.S. Food Safety Administration could take over the food safety responsibilities of these individual departments thereby saving millions in wasted tax dollars every year  in unnecessary redundancy.Especially since the USDA “inspection seals” are apparently meaningless anyway.

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About RC Anderson, Ph.D.
PADI Master SCUBA Diver, Emergency Medical Technician, Diving Medical Technician, Basic Life Support Instructor/Trainer, Advanced First Aid & Wilderness Emergency Care Instructor/Trainer, PADI Dive Master Candidate, and Kayak Diver from Honolulu, Hawaii.

2 Responses to Does “USDA Inspected” Really Mean The Food Is Safe?

  1. Cassandra says:

    Thanks for this great article chef Anderson! What is the best choice health wise to purchase for my family? I try as much as I can to buy from local farms but I am from Connecticut so they aren’t available all year around… When I go to the local grocery store , what should I be buying when purchasing meats? How can USDA inspected food be so “safe ” for us when it’s loaded with steroids and antibiotics? Thanks again
    Rajooty , 24

    • Sorry for the delay in getting back to you, I have been dealing with several health issues of my own and am just getting your questions tonight.

      As for finding fresh vegetables and fruits in Connecticut year-round, they are difficult to find “out of season”, but not impossible. I lived outside of Hartford for a couple years and I was able to find a few local farmers that utilize greenhouses so they are able to grow pretty much year round by controlling the “seasons” inside the greenhouses. I would start by checking at nearby farmers markets, hopefully someone there will be able to lead you in the right direction.

      As for the USDA inspected meats being full of steroids and antibiotics being safe, well thats debatable. They lead you to believe that everything they apply their seal to is safe, but as you can see in this posting, that is not always the case.

      In the case of steroids and antibiotics, there still needs to be more testing to see what the long-term effects will be, besides the obvious side effect of creating “super bugs”. There is still a lot of controversy about what effects the steroids and antibiotics in such high doses will have on the human body over a lifetime. Unfortunately the USDA as well as the rest of the U.S. Government balks at the mention of studies about the effects.

      Unfortunately unless you have ranches near you, where you know the people raising the animals, and that they do not use steroids and antibiotics, unless they are necessary, there is little choice but to purchase the USDA Inspected meats from the local store.

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