Why did the Chicken Cross the Road…

To get away from FDA?


At the inception of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in 1906, Americans ate far less than the 35.8 pounds of chicken they do today. Chickens were a delicacy, a treat, that “typically cost 50 cents a pound (about $22 today).” Chicken going from rare to ubiquitous also had regulatory impact.


There are two federal agencies responsible for ensuring the safety of America’s food.  FSIS regulates meat, poultry, and egg products, while FDA regulates everything else (yes FDA is involved with FSIS things, but that a jurisdictional blur for another day).

While their roots run deeper, the starting point for both FDA and FSIS is in 1906 with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act (FDA) and the Meat Inspection Act (FSIS). The two laws are fundamentally different. The Pure Food and Drug Act is a reactionary statute that granted the government the authority to remove adulterated or misbranded food from commerce once detected. On the other hand, the Meat Inspection Act preemptively mandated the inspection of livestock before slaughtering and another inspection afterwards, and accompanied by a “USDA Inspected” stamp.

Regulation of Chicken

FDA originally regulated chicken because FSIS (which exists under USDA) only regulated meat. USDA did become involved in the poultry industry starting in 1926 with the Federal Poultry Inspection Service (FPIS). This was a voluntary inspection service that was increasingly relied upon as the market demanded increased assurances — the U.S. military required it.

Despite USDA’s efforts through FPIS, FDA remained responsible for ensuring chicken was safe and not decomposed. FDA’s annual reports through the 1950s discuss the Agency’s efforts to improve the sanitation of the poultry industry. For example, in 1951, “poultry ranked third in the number of filth and decomposition charges.

FDA reflected in 1955 that “the poultry business is at a crossroads.” However, a year later, FDA reflected on the criticism that “numerous press items pointed to the lack of Federal controls similar to those provided for meat… the only legal controls now rest with the Food and Drug Administration which must divide its limited inspection staff among all food, drug, and cosmetic industries.

The bad press about the chicken industry ultimately caused a regulatory change in 1957 with the passage of the Poultry Products Inspection Act — causing the chicken to cross the regulatory road away from FDA over to USDA, FSIS.

This wouldn’t be the last time USDA took something from FDA. Most recently “catfish” (all the Siluriformes fish) left FDA for FSIS. However, FDA still regulates some “meats,” such as rabbits and bison. So next time at the grocery store when selecting either the ground beef or the ground bison — one is regulated by FSIS while the other is regulated by FDA. However, bison are subject to a voluntary FSIS inspection regime … … … haven’t we seen this before … … … 

Walking Chicken
Chicken picture, care of USDA.
USDA Chicken Inspection
USDA inspecting chicken.

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