Federal Vs. State Law – Your Questions Answered

Who manages the food labeling sector in the US, and do federal agencies really have more ‘power’ than state agencies when it comes to regulatory responsibility?

state & federal law

The US food sector is extensively regulated by both state and federal agencies, and they coexist closely. Federal agencies dominate the regulatory oversight: The US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) for meat and poultry processing businesses, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for all other food businesses, including FDA labeling requirements.

State agencies have an active role in overseeing food businesses within their respective states, but their role is a collaborative one which sits alongside the federal agencies.


  • Food Labeling – Who’s Responsible?

Food law application is very much dependent on the jurisdiction it’s to be manufactured, sold, consumed, processed, or distributed in (or through). Distinguishing the roles of the USDA and FDA isn’t always so straightforward, and there can be some overlap in the responsibilities they hold.

For example, according to FDA ingredient labeling requirements, the FDA is responsible for macaroni and noodle products whereas the USDA regulates its recipe partner, such as spaghetti sauce with meat.


  • What is ‘Interstate Commerce’?

US federal food law applies to all food in ‘interstate commerce’ which is the transportation of products across borders.

Most foods fit this definition as they’re often either moved across a state line to be processed, manufactured, sold, or consumed, or they contain ingredients which originate from other states.

Foods not classed as being in interstate commerce are regulated only by state law.

For example, if you’re supplying meat that has only been inspected by a state agency, you can only legally distribute it for sale and consumption in that one state. If you want to expand your reach, the product will need to be inspected by federal agencies.


  • What Legal Action Should I Know About?

A state inspection that reveals a problem, such as an undeclared allergen, could be reported to the FDA and subject to specific FDA labeling guidelines. They will then have the authority to conduct its own inspection.


  • Can Federal Law Overrule State Law?

The challenge presented to US companies wishing to expand their state reach, or non-US brands eager to launch a new product in the US, must be aware of both federal and state food law and who governs their particular interests.

“Consumers and companies concerned with those state efforts must also actively participate in federal policymaking, such as FDA’s call for input on natural labeling or appropriations processes that might preempt state GE labeling laws”  Once a state acts, federal law can be used to effectively nullify those state laws. This includes laws that are favorable by state consumers and brands – which is why it’s vital that they also participate in federal policymaking.


Top Takeaway

Get to know your product inside and out. Do you want to sell it in one state or various states? Has it, or any ingredients within it, travelled from other states before reaching its final destination? And do you know your responsibilities to meet FDA ingredient labeling requirements? For any guidance on exporting to the US, or expanding your product’s reach in the market, do contact a member of the Ashbury team.

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