Food Law


| Share

Gov't Regulation of Prod. Ag.

Despite the increasing market pressures for ag producers to follow production practices that reduce the risk of their commodities being unsafe for food use, state and federal governments are increasingly regulating production agriculture. These pages overview the expanding scope of government regulation of ag production practices.


Historically, the agriculture production sector has not been regulated for food safety concerns, but there were government efforts to promote production and sales, establish commodity grades and standards, and prevent the spread of plant and animal diseases.  Additional programs addressed soil and water conservation, production and business risk, environmental impact on water from livestock waste and pesticide application, and worker protection from pesticide exposure.  Environmental impact on air and use of biotechnology are increasingly being addressed.  But none of these focused directly on the question of whether production practices impacted the safety of the final food product.

An early exception has been the regulation of the dairy industry by local, state and federal governments.

Subsequent oversight addressed food animal drugs, food animal feed, and pesticide crop residue.  Most recently, there is emerging regulation of agricultural products consumed raw that pose a high-risk of causing a food-borne illness.

This page first introduces grade and standards for agricultural commodities.

USDA Grades and Standards

In an effort to promote (facilitate) the sales and purchases of agricultural commodities, the U.S. federal government (through USDA) established standards that buyers and sellers could rely on when describing agricultural commodities, such as grain and livestock.  Two agencies within the USDA have primary responsibilities for this task.  Note that these brief introduces describe these programs as voluntary and funded with user-fees.  Also note that these efforts were not intended to provide direct information to consumers (but instead are intended to be used primarily by food businesses) and did not address the safety of the commodity for human consumption (the focus is on quality of the commodity).

  • USDA Federal Grain Inspection Service offers a variety of [user fee funded] programs and services that help market U.S. grain. [The agency] provide[s] farmers, handlers, processors, exporters, and international buyers with information and tools that accurately and consistently describe the quality and quantity of the grain and commodities being bought and sold.  The Official U.S. Standards for Grain  are used each and every day by sellers and buyers around the world to communicate the type and quality of grain bought and sold.  Taken from web page that no longer exists.  Grains include barley, canola, corn, flaxseed, mixed grain, oats, rye, sorghum, soybeans, sunflower seed, triticale, and wheat.


  • [USDA Agricultural Marketing Service's (AMS)] quality grade standards, grading, certification, auditing, inspection, and laboratory analysis are voluntary tools that industry can use to help promote and communicate quality and wholesomeness to consumers. Industry pays for these services and since they are voluntary, their widespread use by industry indicates they are valuable tools in helping market their products. Taken from USDA AMS web site


    • USDA [AMS] quality grade marks are usually seen on beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, butter, and eggs. For many other products, such as fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, the grade mark isn't always visible on the retail product. In these commodities, the grading service is used by wholesalers, and the final retail packaging may not include the grade mark.  Taken from web page that no longer exists.
    • USDA [AMS] quality standards are based on measurable attributes that describe the value and utility of the product. For example, Beef quality standards are based on attributes such as marbling (the amount of fat interspersed with lean meat), color, firmness, texture, and age of the animal, for each grade. Standards for each product describe the entire range of quality for a product, and the number of grades varies by commodity. There are eight grades for beef, and three each for chickens, eggs, and turkeys. On the other hand, there are 38 grades for cotton, and more than 312 fruit, vegetable, and specialty product standards. Taken from web page that no longer exists.
    • [AMS] Meat Certification Services provide assurance to large-quantity buyers such as hospitals, schools, restaurants, hotels, airlines, and the military that products comply with their requirements. Under the certifications service, meat graders review and certify livestock, meat, and meat products according to buyer specifications.  Taken from Taken from web page that no longer exists.
    • AMS provides audit and accreditation programs based on International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Standards and/or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Principles and Guidelines. These programs provide producers and suppliers of agricultural products the opportunity to assure customers of their ability to provide consistent quality products or services. AMS verifies their documented programs through independent, third-party audits. AMS audit and accreditation programs are voluntary and paid through hourly user-fees.  Taken from web page that no longer exists.
      • The AMS audit and accreditation programs address fruits, vegetables, livestock, poultry and seed.


Each of these FGIS and AMS programs is VOLUNTARY.  Individual firms decide whether to participate.  The advantage of participation is that the food businesses can rely on long-standing standards in describing the nature or characteristics of the agricultural commodity, such as No. 2 yellow corn, U.S extra fancy apples, No. 1 feeder cattle, or Choice beef.  However, these programs and the underlying grades and standards are quality measures, not safety measures.


Dairy farms

The dairy industry was perhaps one of the first sectors of the agriculture sector to be subject to on farm standards and inspections. Local and state governments initially regulated dairy farmers.  The federal government now has guidelines for standards for state and local governments to enforce.

  • The dairy industry, including dairy farms, have been regulated by state & local governments for more than a century.
  • Federal (FDA) guidance is offered to assist local and state governments.


Pesticide residue

  • For several decades, the EPA has been responsible for regulating pesticides that are used by growers to protect crops and for setting limits on the amount of pesticides that may remain in or on foods (residue tolerances) marketed in the United States  These tolerances are enforced by USDA (meat and poultry) and FDA (other foods).
  • By law, EPA is responsible for regulating the pesticides that are used by growers to protect crops and for setting limits on the amount of pesticides that may remain in or on foods marketed in the United States. These limits on pesticides left on foods are called "tolerances" in the United States (they are referred to as maximum residue limits, or MRLs, in many other countries).
  • EPA establishes tolerances for each pesticide based on the potential risks to human health posed by that pesticide. Some risk assessments are based on the assumption that residues will always be present in food at the maximum level permitted by the tolerance. Other risk assessments use actual or anticipated residue data, to reflect real-world consumer exposure as closely as possible.
  • As stated above, EPA sets the tolerance limits for each pesticide that may be found on foods. But the USDA enforces tolerances established for meat, poultry and some egg products, while the FDA enforces tolerances established for other foods.
  • It is the food business/processor who is expected to conduct the first level of tests to assure that the agricultural commodities being processed into food complies with the EPA tolerances.  Most likely, these tests should be part of the firm's HACCP plan, including identifying pesticides that producers are likely to use, monitoring practices that the processor will use, and strategies that will be followed if a violation of a pesticide tolerance is detected.
  • Processors however are more likely to take a proactive approach by specifying limits that producers must meet when supplying their agricultural commodities to the processor.  These limits might be specified in a contract between the processor and producer, or more generally by requiring the producers to adhere to more general guidelines and practices such as those being directed by Good Agricultural Practices (GAP).
  • The FDA and USDA will likely take a role in a situation only when a problem is detected at the processor level.
  • If a pesticide residue problem can be traced back to a producer whose production practices violated the EPA pesticide regulations, the EPA (and cooperating state agency) will penalize the producer according to the Federal pesticide law (e.g., FIFRA, see


High-risk fruits and vegetables

The Produce Safety Regulation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 will establish mandatory, science-based, minimum standards for the safe growing, harvesting, sorting, packing, and storage of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Taken from

The proposed rulemaking shall--
"(A) provide sufficient flexibility to be applicable to various types of entities engaged in the production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables that are raw agricultural commodities, including small businesses and entities that sell directly to consumers, and be appropriate to the scale and diversity of the production and harvesting of such commodities;
"(B) include, with respect to growing, harvesting, sorting, packing, and storage operations, science-based minimum standards related to soil amendments, hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, animals in the growing area, and water;
"(C) consider hazards that occur naturally, may be unintentionally introduced, or may be intentionally introduced, including by acts of terrorism;
"(D) take into consideration, consistent with ensuring enforceable public health protection, conservation and environmental practice standards and policies established by Federal natural resource conservation, wildlife conservation, and environmental agencies;
"(E) in the case of production that is certified organic, not include any requirements that conflict with or duplicate the requirements of the national organic program ... while providing the same level of public health protection as the requirements under guidance documents, including guidance documents regarding action levels, and regulations under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act

Taken from page that no longer exists.


Clearly, U.S. federal law is beginning to regulate certain aspects of food production.


Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD)

Also see FACT SHEET: Veterinary Feed Directive Final Rule and Next Steps   and Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD).  



Traditional production agriculture has not be highly regulated in terms of quality or safety of the commodity.  The government's involvement has traditionally been to establish standards by which firms in the industry can communicate descriptions of their commodity to one another.  The increasing focus on whether the agricultural commodity can safely be used for human consumption is being driven more by market forces, than by government regulation.  The exceptions to this broad statement include long-standing regulation of dairy farms, more recently oversight of pesticide residues, and most recently, fruits and  vegetables intended for raw consumption.  Whether safety will emerge as a goal for government regulation of agricultural commodities will be determined in the future.




This material is intended for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for competent legal counsel. Seek appropriate professional advice for answers to your specific questions.

This material is protected by U.S. copyright laws.

Creative Commons License
Feel free to use and share this content, but please do so under the conditions of our Creative Commons license and our Rules for Use. Thanks.