As kids growing up, many of us were often given a message along the lines of, “Be sure to eat your protein—it’s good for your muscles!” For sure, dietary protein is an essential nutrient for maintaining muscle strength, bone health and blood sugar control. As part of appreciating the plethora of protein choices available to many of us as we seek to build healthy meals, let’s take a look at the farming practices and regulations that support the production of animal protein in our food system.
It all starts on the farm
Shelter, food and medical care are three top areas farmers focus on as they seek to care for the animals that make up our food system. These three areas are subject to regulatory oversight that creates standards for safe and reliable animal protein production.
To help ensure farm animals are fed a healthy diet, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) upholds the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The FDA must approve animal feed that is given to farm animals similarly to how the agency oversees the safety of human food. According to the agency, FDA regulators work to certify that all animal feed displays the following core characteristics: purity, wholesomeness, produced under clean conditions, free of harmful substances, and labeled appropriately and truthfully. Additionally, animal feed regulation is supported by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). AAFCO, formed in 1909, comprises state and federal feed regulators who oversee the approval process for feed ingredients.
In addition to being well-fed, animals must also receive medical attention to prevent and treat illnesses. For more than 50 years, veterinarians and producers have administered antibiotics to animals being raised for meat—primarily to poultry, swine, and cattle. For each newly proposed drug to become part of the animal-care toolbox, extensive scientific studies that evaluate its efficacy and safety in animals, in addition to proof of its safety for humans who consume foodstuffs derived from those treated animals, must be submitted to the FDA by a pharmaceutical sponsor.
Whenever an antibiotic is used to treat a food animal, the animal is withdrawn from the food system and will not be used for food production until any harmful residues have cleared its system. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), along with the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), administers the U.S. National Residue Program (NRP) to prevent residues that pose a potential threat to human health from entering the food supply. Thus, consumers are at little-to-no risk when they eat products from animals that previously have been treated with antibiotics.
Regulate more, then off to the store
After leaving the farm, there are further regulatory actions that are undertaken to ensure animals are processed in a safe and humane manner. These actions are overseen by the USDA, which has developed the following federal laws and processing standards:
- The 28-Hour Law states that when transporting animals that will be raised for food or used in food production across state lines, the animals cannot be kept in “rail carriers, express carriers, or common carriers” for more than 28 consecutive hours without being let out for five hours to rest and access food and water.
- The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act ensures proper practices in the slaughtering of animals and further ensures that they will not experience needless suffering. This law addresses processing plant considerations such as animals slipping and falling, access to food and water, and the exposure of animals to stress.
- Poultry and cattle must also be slaughtered using Good Commercial Practices, a set of regulations that is very similar to the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. Audit procedures are in place to help identify possible forms of animal stress in processing plants. To add to this, processing cannot occur if USDAFood Safety Inspection Service personnel are not present and an inspection of every animal is not conducted.
- Lastly, the USDA has a stringent set of rules that meat processors must follow if they want to be a federally recognized establishment. These rules need to be followed to avoid citations from inspectors. They include the Poultry Products Inspection Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act. They verify that the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and Good Commercial Practices are being conducted accurately.
Before meat reaches grocery store shelves and your plate, additional regulations help support food safety further. Service industry businesses such hotels, airlines, supermarkets and restaurants (who purchase large quantities of meat for patrons) abide by the USDA’s Institutional Meat Purchase Specifications that detail meat handling, packaging and USDA certification. These specifications establish important guidelines, such as the temperatures at which meat must arrive in stores to be accepted (e.g., if meat arrives chilled, its temperature must measure no higher than 40°F and no lower than 28°F), what specific materials can be used to package products, the identification of the manufacturer’s name and certification, and the labeling of the meat’s grade and date of slaughter.
Once all these specifications are met, animal protein is ready for consumers. At that point, the continued safety of the product is in our hands—we should be sure to follow safe food-handling steps to properly store, cook and serve our food.
When you’re ready to enjoy your next burger or chicken salad, we hope you appreciate your protein just a little bit more after reading about some of the safety and regulatory practices that help protect our food system.