As food science students you should have a general understanding of the laws governing food production and where those laws come from.

The US constitution provides the basic framework for food laws. This framework can be seen in the three branches of government:

  1. The Executive
  2. The Judicial
  3. The Legislative 

The executive branch is responsible for ‘executing’ i.e. enforcing the laws created by the legislative branch. The leadership of the executive branch consists of the President, Vice-President, and the Administration that they appoint to advise them on issues relating to their departments. Federal agencies include the US Departments of:

  1. Agriculture
  2. Commerce
  3. Defense
  4. Education
  5. Energy
  6. Health and Human Services
  7. Homeland Security
  8. Housing and Urban Development
  9. The Interior
  10. Justice
  11. Labor
  12. State
  13. Transportation
  14. Treasury
  15. Veteran Affairs

The executive agencies responsible for food regulations in the US are the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration, which falls under Department of Health and Human Services.

The Judiciary branch acts as a referee between the legislative and the executive branch to interpret the constitution and statutory law. When the courts make a decision, it presents a judicial opinion which is used as  precedent for future cases. The laws created by the judiciary are referred to as case or common law.

There are three levels of the judiciary branch, each with increasing rank of authority:

  1. District Court
  2. Court of Appeals (or Circuit Court)
  3. Supreme Court

The legislative branch is the branch of government responsible for creating statutory laws which are also referred to as Acts. Before statutory laws are passed, they are first presented as bills. The bills are presented by Senators or members of the House of Representatives, representing their various constituencies.

The bills are debated in the Senate and the House of Representatives in Congress. When there is consensus, the bill goes to the President for signing. The President has the option of signing the bill into statutory law or vetoing the bill. In the case of a veto, the bill goes back to Congress for debate. However, a vetoed bill can be overturned by two-thirds majority of the House of Representatives and Congress. 

Assuming that the bill is signed into law by the President, it is not yet ready for implementation. This is because the statutory law only provides a conceptual idea of principles to be followed. However, there are no details. The details are in the regulations, so until those are written, the law cannot be implemented.

The regulations are written by the relevant federal agencies, like the FDA and the USDA. But first of all, the law must first be published in a record called the US Statutes at Large. After that it is codified by transferring it to a record called the United States Code (USC).

Federal agencies can then use the laws codified in the USC as a basis to develop rules fleshing out the details of how the laws will be implemented. These “fleshed out” rules are published in a public record called the Federal Register for public review and comments for a specific period before they are finally codified as regulations in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

The CFR is divided into 50 titles. The titles are further broken down to volume, chapter, parts, sub-parts, sections, paragraphs and sub-paragraphs. The USDA regulations for inspection of meat, poultry and egg products can be found under title number 9 of the CFR, while regulations governing other foods can be found under title number 21 of the CFR.

Some important statutory laws to be familiar with are:

  • Federal Meat Inspection Act (1906)
  • Food Drug and Cosmetics Act (1938)
  • Poultry Products Inspection Act (1957)
  • Color Additives Amendment Act (1950)
  • Wholesome Meat Act (1967)
  • Egg Products Inspection Act (1970)
  • Federal Anti-Tampering Act (1983)
  • Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (1990)
  • Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (1994)
  • Food Quality Protection Act (1996)
  • Food Safety Modernization Act (2010)

We will discuss these acts in greater depth later on in the course. Apart from developing regulations, federal agencies may also develop guidance documents. These are guidelines of best practice that may shape regulations in the future but are not binding. The word “should” is reflected in guidance documents to demonstrate its optional nature, while the words “shall”, “must” or “required” is used in regulations to demonstrate its mandatory nature.

Based on the structure of the US Constitution and the law-making process that I have outlined, you have seen that laws are created not only for the people, but with the people, and by the people. Therefore everyone, including you, has an opportunity to be a part of the process.

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Courtney Simons
Courtney Simons
Dr. Simons is a food science educator. He earned his bachelor’s degree in food science, and Ph.D. in cereal science at North Dakota State University.