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Ensuring the safety of our food supply is one of the key responsibilities of public health authorities at both the state and local levels all across the United States. With the recent news reports on an outbreak of foodborne illness in the Boston area, I wanted to take a moment to recognize the vitally important partnerships between the DPH Bureau of Environmental Health and local boards of health, who work tirelessly to promote food safety in the Commonwealth.

A group of people enjoying a healthy lunch at a restaurant table

Much of our modern food protection laws and regulations can be traced back to the activity of muckraking journalists in the early 20th century – and most importantly the publication of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair in 1906.  The main focus of the book was on the plight of working-class laborers in Chicago, and his depiction of contaminated and unsanitary meatpacking plants proved to be a lasting legacy in the development of standards and safeguards in how the food we eat is manufactured and distributed.  As Sinclair put it, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Less than four months after The Jungle was published, Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act.  In 1938 the Pure Food and Drug Act was replaced by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which to this day still provides the basis for the federal regulation of food through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In Massachusetts, the DPH Food Protection Program (FPP) within the Bureau of Environmental Health is responsible for the promulgation of food safety regulations that establish the minimum standards for retail and wholesale food operations.  These regulations serve as the state equivalent for much of what of the FDA regulates at the national level.  The program also licenses and inspects wholesale food manufacturers and addresses imminent health hazards in the retail food regulatory system, in partnership with local boards of health.

In other activities, the Food Protection Program provides technical assistance and oversight of local activities focusing on foodborne illness outbreak and complaint investigations, food product recalls, FDA cooperative milk and seafood programs which require state inspection for interstate commerce, and the routine inspections of high-risk food manufacturers and distributors.  FPP is also responsible for federal performance based standards for state food manufacturing regulatory programs.

So much of what we do as a state public health agency depends on close working partnerships with our counterparts at the city and town level – and nowhere are these partnerships more important than in the case of a foodborne illness outbreak.

Most foodborne illnesses are reported to FPP through local health officials, as local Boards of Health are responsible for investigating foodborne illness associated with retail food establishments.  When DPH receives a report of a foodborne illness that implicates a specific retail establishment, the information is forwarded to the local Board of Health that licenses and inspects that establishment. Epidemiologists in the Bureau of Infectious Disease also work with local health partners and FPP to interview individuals diagnosed with foodborne illness to help facilitate investigations into where the foodborne illness may have originated.   Staff from the Bureau of Laboratory Sciences test both human biologic specimens and environmental samples, to help connect the work of the Bureau of Environmental Health and Bureau of Infectious Disease.

And there’s good news to report as we continue our work in protecting the safety of our food supply. Under the Fiscal Year 2014 budget signed by Governor Patrick, the number of state-supported inspectors protecting the public from foodborne illnesses has doubled.  These additional food inspectors will provide critical support to local Boards of Health across Massachusetts and enhance the department’s capacity to ensure a safe and wholesome food supply.

Written By:


Commissioner of the Department of Public Health

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