Founded in 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed into law an act of Congress establishing the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA has a long, rich history of improving and protecting America's food supply.
The timeline below details the history of FSIS and its predecessors, from 1862 to the present. To learn about current agency initiatives, explore other sections of our website. There's always something new!
The Formation of USDA's Division of Chemistry
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln founded the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and appointed a chemist, Charles M. Wetherill, to lead USDA's Division of Chemistry, which in 1901 became the Bureau of Chemistry.
In 1883, Harvey W. Wiley, M.D., was appointed chief chemist at USDA. Wiley devoted his career to raising public awareness of problems with adulterated food; developing standards for food processing; and campaigning for the Pure Food and Drugs Act, also known as the "Wiley Act."
The Growing Meat Packing Industry
During the latter half of the 1800s, the railroads expanded rapidly across the United States and its territories, providing for improved transportation of livestock. Technological advancements, such as refrigerated rail cars and electricity, made year-round business possible for the meat packing industry.
Foreign Animal Diseases and Interstate Commerce
In 1865, USDA Secretary Isaac Newton urged Congress to enact legislation providing for the quarantine of imported animals, which had long been identified as a source of disease. The Act became law, but jurisdiction was given to the Treasury Department. Little preventive action was taken, and diseased animals continued to be imported. Consequently, individual states attempted to control or eradicate livestock diseases, but the inconsistencies in state requirements and enforcement were problematic.
In May 1884, President Chester Arthur signed an act establishing the USDA Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI), charged with preventing diseased animals from being used as food. By August 1884, the Treasury Department's quarantine stations were transferred to the BAI. Stations in Baltimore, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, along with the customs offices on the Canadian and Mexican borders, served as safeguards against foreign animal diseases.
In 1886, the Supreme Court ruled in the Wabash case that only the federal government could regulate interstate commerce, and in 1887, Congress passed the Interstate Commerce Act.
Foreign Trade and Meat Inspection
Exports of U.S. livestock, as well as animal products, fell under increasingly more stringent restrictions by foreign countries. U.S. producers and packers urged the government to implement an inspection program that would enable them to compete in foreign markets.
On August 30, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed the first law requiring inspection of meat products. The law required that USDA, through the Bureau of Animal Industry, inspect salted pork and bacon intended for exportation. In 1891, this law was amended to require the inspection and certification of all live cattle and beef intended for exportation.
Turning Point for Meat Inspection
In 1905, author Upton Sinclair published the novel titled The Jungle, taking aim at the poor working conditions in a Chicago meatpacking house. However, it was the filthy conditions, described in nauseating detail—and the threat they posed to meat consumers—that caused a public furor. Sinclair urged President Theodore Roosevelt to require federal inspectors in meat-packing houses.
The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) became law on the same day in 1906. The Pure Food and Drug Act prevented the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors. The FMIA prohibited the sale of adulterated or misbranded meat and meat products for food, and ensured that meat and meat products were slaughtered and processed under sanitary conditions.
USDA's Meat Inspection Responsibilities
USDA's Bureau of Chemistry and Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI) were assigned the tasks of enforcing the Pure Food and Drug Act and the FMIA, respectively. Thus, the BAI performed meat inspection services.
In 1910, the BAI's Meat Inspection Division established a research center in Beltsville, Md. Seven similar laboratories were eventually created throughout the country to develop new testing methods and to test meat and meat products for foreign substances.
Starting in 1912, BAI also inspected eggs for the Navy, long before USDA inspected them for the market and the public.
Origins of the Food and Drug Administration
In 1927, USDA's Bureau of Chemistry was reorganized and renamed the Food, Drug, and Insecticide Administration.
In 1931, it was renamed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In 1938, Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which gave the FDA the authority to issue food safety standards, among other authorities.
In 1940, the FDA was moved from USDA to the Federal Security Agency, which in 1953 became the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare—now the Department of Health and Human Services.
Sweeping Changes in the Meat-Packing Industry
Following World War II, the processing industry changed significantly. The rapid growth of the federal highway system and the development of refrigerated trucks allowed meat packers to move out of expensive urban areas. Competition in the meat-packing business led to sophisticated, mechanized plants in less expensive rural areas.
Voluntary Inspection of Exotic Species
In 1946, the scope of inspection was expanded with the passage of The Agricultural Marketing Act (AMA), which allowed for inspection of exotic and game animals on a fee-for-service basis. The 1946 Act also provided USDA the authority to inspect, certify and identify the class, quality and condition of agricultural products. Grading and quality identification activities were separated from inspection activities and assigned to USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service in 1981. Under the AMA, FSIS also provides a range of voluntary inspection, certification, and identification services.
Creation of USDA's Agricultural Research Service
In 1953, the Eisenhower Administration inaugurated sweeping organizational changes at USDA. Scientific bureaus, including the Bureau of Animal Industry and the Bureau of Dairy Industry, were abolished and their functions were transferred to the newly established Agricultural Research Service (ARS).
Health concerns posed by poultry were first addressed in 1926, when USDA began to offer a voluntary inspection and grading service to poultry processors through its Federal Poultry Inspection Service.
Following World War II, there was explosive growth in consumer demand for dressed, ready-to-cook, and processed poultry products. In 1957, Congress passed the Poultry Products Inspection Act, which ensured, just like the FMIA did for meat products, that poultry products shipped in interstate commerce are continuously inspected: prior to slaughter, after slaughter, before processing and, if the poultry was imported, at the point of entry into the United States. The law also required that plant facilities be sanitary and that product labels be accurate and truthful.
Industry Changes, New Concerns
During the 1950s and 1960s, inspection increasingly focused on wholesomeness and visible contamination. Concerns about animal disease were diminishing. However, industry operations were becoming increasingly complex. Industry was producing more and more different kinds of products, and in greater and greater volume, resulting in increased concerns about mislabeling and economic adulteration.
In 1958, in response to the public's concern about invisible hazards from chemicals added directly or indirectly to foods, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 was amended with the Food Additive Amendment to ensure the safety of ingredients used in processed foods, including animal drug residues in meat and poultry products.
Also in 1958, after a three-year campaign by animal-advocacy groups, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) was signed into law. It required that the government only purchase livestock that had been slaughtered humanely, but did not directly require it of industry. Twenty years later, the HMSA of 1978 amended the FMIA by requiring that all meat inspected by FSIS for use as human food be produced from livestock slaughtered by humane methods.
1960s: A Decade of Regulatory Reform
In 1967 and 1968, respectively, the Wholesome Meat Act and the Wholesome Poultry Act amended the FMIA and the PPIA, addressing the new inspection challenges that had arisen from an increasingly complicated market. Under the new laws, states were required to conduct maintain meat and poultry inspection programs "at least equal to" the federal program.
In 1965, ARS' Consumer and Marketing Service was reorganized to include the Meat Inspection Division and Poultry Division, merging federal meat and poultry inspection into one program.
In 1970, Congress passed the Egg Products Inspection Act (EPIA), which provides for the mandatory continuous inspection of the processing of liquid, frozen, and dried egg products. For the next 25 years, ARS' Poultry Division inspected egg products to ensure they were wholesome, otherwise not adulterated, and properly labeled and packaged to protect the health and welfare of consumers.
In 1995, FSIS became responsible for the inspection of pasteurized liquid, frozen, or dried egg products. FDA assumed responsibility for shell egg safety.
Meat & Poultry Inspection's Changing Home
In 1971, ARS was reorganized, and in 1972, all of the meat and poultry inspection functions of ARS' Consumer and Marketing Service were transferred to the newly created Animal and Plant Health Service (APHIS).
In 1977, the Food Safety and Quality Service (FSQS) was created to perform meat and poultry grading, as well as inspection activities, instead of APHIS. In 1981, FSQS was reorganized and renamed the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).
An Unprecedented Outbreak, a New Science-Based Inspection System
In 1993, an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 occurred in the Pacific Northwest, causing 400 illnesses and four deaths. The public demanded change for safer ground beef products.
At the time, FSIS inspection was largely organoleptic (relying on sight, touch, and smell), and agency officials and stakeholders called for a more "science-based" meat and poultry inspection system. In response, FSIS stepped up its research on the benefits of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), setting the stage for the most significant change in regulatory philosophy in the history of U.S. food inspection.
On July 25, 1996, FSIS issued its landmark rule, Pathogen Reduction/HACCP Systems. The rule focuses on the prevention and reduction of microbial pathogens on raw products that can cause illness.
HACCP clarifies the respective roles of government and industry. Industry is accountable for producing safe food. Government is responsible for setting appropriate food safety standards, maintaining vigorous inspection oversight to ensure those standards are met, and maintaining a strong regulatory enforcement program to deal with noncompliance.
HACCP was implemented in all FSIS- and state-inspected meat and poultry slaughter and processing establishments across the nation, between January 1997 and January 2000. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recognized HACCP as an important factor in the overall decline in bacterial foodborne illnesses since 1996.
Improving Food Safety
Since the implementation of HACCP, FSIS has intensified efforts to combat foodborne pathogens; for example, testing meat and poultry products for Listeria monocytogenes, implementing stricter Salmonella and new Campylobacter performance standards for poultry products, and declaring that six additional serogroups of pathogenic E. coli (in addition to E. coli O157:H7) are adulterants in non-intact raw beef.
FSIS works with federal, state and local food safety partners to address emerging pathogens, to detect foodborne hazards, and to prevent foodborne illness.