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USDA vs. FDA: What’s the Difference?

Explaining the weirdly complicated food inspection system in America

Photos: Shutterstock, Photo illustration: Esra Erol/Eater

The only difference, usually, between a cheese pizza and a pepperoni-topped pizza is the pepperoni. Yet in the United States of America, two completely different government agencies are responsible for regulating and inspecting each. A frozen pepperoni pizza, because it contains meat, will go through three separate USDA inspections: At the slaughterhouse, at the pepperoni-making facility, and at the pizza factory. Meanwhile, a frozen cheese pizza usually only needs approval from the FDA once: when the pizza manufacturer adds a nutritional label.

Almost everything Americans eat — including the food on restaurant menus across the country — has been vetted by one of two government agencies. The Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), which is a part of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a division of the U.S. Department of Health, regulates drugs, dietary supplements, and ensures, according to government language, that the foods people eat in the U.S. “are safe, wholesome, sanitary and properly labeled.” The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), meanwhile, works to support the American agricultural economy and “provide a safe, sufficient, and nutritious food supply for the American people.”

Needless to say, there are several confusing divisions between the two agencies. The USDA mainly oversees meat, poultry, and eggs — but under its umbrella also falls the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which establishes Dietary Guidelines, and the Food and Nutrition Service, which administers SNAP benefits (aka food stamps). The FDA, meanwhile, is responsible for regulating — and slapping a nutrition facts label — on all processed foods created and sold in the U.S.

Though many Americans may think the USDA is the main inspection arm of the U.S. government — due to its more visible logo on meats and organic certifications — it’s actually the FDA that regulates over 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, including dairy, seafood, produce, packaged foods, bottled water, and eggs. (The USDA’s meat grades come out of its marketing branch, which is part of the reason why those blue stamps feature the USDA logo so prominently. The FDA’s logo doesn’t appear on the millions of nutrition labels it approves each year.)

This week, Secretary of Agriculture nominee Sonny Perdue finally sat for his Senate confirmation hearing. The former governor of Georgia has been a controversial figure ever since President Trump announced his nomination: Perdue, a lifelong Republican, is predictably pro-big business, anti-regulation, and anti-immigration. In 2006, under Perdue, Georgia passed some of the country’s strictest laws aimed at prosecuting undocumented workers by punishing those who employed them and requiring employers to fully verify eligibility status before hiring. Such policies have been proven to be detrimental to farm communities and independent restaurants.

Perdue’s nomination aside, the USDA affects restaurants in many ways, from how much diners pay for their steak (depending on the beef’s grade) to whether a restaurant may accept SNAP benefits. It might also affect whether or not a chef may produce charcuterie onsite, and how much restaurateurs pay for food grown in the U.S. or overseas.

Meanwhile, the FDA does not itself inspect restaurants, but in addition to green-lighting the packaged food available for purchase in America, its Food Code is what city and state Departments of Health use when inspecting local businesses. The Code is meant to keep food at safe temperatures and conditions so as to prevent foodborne illness and the spread of disease.

Earlier this month, President Trump nominated Scott Gottlieb, a doctor and former conservative health policy analyst, as FDA commissioner. Gottlieb has ties to Big Pharma, and has worked inside the FDA before. He’s also a controversial pick who favors smaller government and deregulation, but he doesn’t seem to support Donald Trump’s one-time promise to eliminate food safety inspections at the FDA. How he might impact the agency and the U.S. food supply remains to be seen.

Here’s a brief breakdown of the two agencies’ (very confusing) purviews, organized by type of food.


MEAT

The USDA’s internal Food Safety and Inspection Service regulates almost all of the meat we eat, including beef, pork, and lamb (and poultry, see below). Safety inspections are mandatory, but the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service also offers producers the option to grade meat. This extra service, which comes with a fee, is why consumers will see meat cuts labeled “USDA Prime” or “USDA Choice” at the grocery store. Diners will note these distinctions, used to indicate quality, on many steakhouse menus.

The FDA, meanwhile, regulates “meat from exotic animals,” which includes venison and other hunted game like wild boar. The USDA is also responsible for inspecting sausages, but the FDA inspects sausage casings (because, as FoodSafetyNews writes, “they have no nutritional value as meat.”)

POULTRY

Domesticated chicken, turkey, duck, and goose is inspected by the USDA; the USDA also inspects canned chicken products.

FISH

The FDA regulates fish, shellfish, and all seafood — except farmed catfish, which is inspected by the USDA (for now; the Government Accountability Office has urged Congress to consider removing that responsibility from the USDA, citing inefficient use of taxpayer dollars).

EGGS

Representatives from the USDA and FDA acknowledge that laws surrounding the regulation of eggs are murky and vary from product to product. In general, the USDA inspects egg products, like packaged egg whites and powdered eggs used in food processing, while the FDA regulates whole eggs in their shells. (Again, USDA-graded eggs are a part of the branch’s marketing arm, and do not reflect inspection for safety.) Egg substitutes and replacements (which do not contain any egg product) are regulated by the FDA.

DAIRY

The FDA regulates packaged milk and dairy in the U.S., including yogurt, sour cream, cheese, and ice cream that does not contain eggs. The FDA has specific rules for different kinds of cheeses, including how much moisture and milk fat they must contain, and what aging times are required for cheeses made from raw, or unpasteurized, milk.

PRODUCE

Raw fruits and vegetables fall under the regulation of the USDA, but once they’re processed — into applesauce or bottled juice or dried fruit chips — they become the FDA’s problem.

PACKAGED FOODS

The production of packaged foods like Cheez-Its, Starburst, Lucky Charms, grab-and-go salads, frozen pizza, and jars of peanut butter and jelly are all subject to FDA inspection and regulation.

It’s when meat shows up on packaged sandwiches and pizza that interesting exceptions to USDA/FDA rules emerge. Open-faced meat sandwiches, where the ratio of meat to bread and other ingredients is more than half, are regulated by the USDA. But closed sandwiches, which have two slices of bread, are regulated by the FDA because the ratio of meat to other ingredients is less than 50 percent.

Daniela Galarza is a senior editor at Eater.
Editor: Erin DeJesus