A regulator and source of aid, born in civil war

USDA turns 150 on May 15
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old
Photos courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
Top row: A woman uses food stamps to feed her family in 1941. A USDA Agricultural Marketing Service reporter views cattle for a livestock report in 1941. George Pye, first special agent in Pulaski County, Ark., and his wife ride by horse and buggy in 1929. Bottom row: Martha Fawcett asks Hamilton Newlin about his dairy herd in 1941. A laboratory specialist performs tests at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in 1971. A USDA inspector grades beef in 1972. 4-H'ers from Beltsville, Md., tend sheep in 1953. (Photos courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

The Department of Agriculture has been working to eradicate diseases affecting animals and humans in the U.S. since the 19th century, when contagious bovine pleuropneumonia was eliminated as a threat.

Dr. Gregory L. Parham, administrator of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said that since that time, his agency and its predecessors have wiped out in the U.S. foot-and-mouth disease, glanders, dourine, Texas cattle fever, vesicular exanthema of swine, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, sheep scabies, exotic Newcastle disease, classical swine fever, and highly pathogenic avian influenza.

His father, Dr. William M. Parham, worked as a USDA field agent in Mexico starting in 1951 in a program to eradicate screwworms, which were eliminated in the U.S. by 1966. The younger Dr. Parham is continuing his father's work in Mexico and Panama through a cooperative screwworm eradication program.

"I just find that very inspiring—that this was something that he was part of," Dr. Parham said.

Dr. Hany Sidrak, executive associate for regulatory operations in the Office of Field Operations for USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said that, since the USDA was founded, its duties have grown to include continuous inspection of red meat, poultry, and egg products as well as regulation of animal welfare. He noted that veterinarians have been part of the department since meat inspection began, and his agency is now one of the nation's top employers of veterinarians.

The USDA and the U.S. veterinary profession have influenced one another's development in the 150 years since President Abraham Lincoln signed the legislation that created the Department of Agriculture. Little more than one year after the start of the Civil War and 13 months before the founding of the USVMA (which would become the AVMA), the legislation signed by Lincoln on May 15, 1862, created a federal department to "procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants" and agricultural information. Agency duties also included preserving literature, performing "practical and scientific" experiments, and collecting statistics.

The 1969 USDA document "The Story of U.S. Agricultural Estimates" suggests timing made the legislation possible.

"Withdrawal of Southern members of Congress following secession made possible the passage of the Homestead Act, the Land-Grant College Act, and the Act of May 15, 1862, establishing the Department of Agriculture," the document states.

Beyond food safety

The department has since grown to include more than 30 agencies and offices with duties that range from protecting livestock and plant health to regulating food safety and quality, investigating disease risks, researching production methods, developing disease treatments, marketing U.S. exports, feeding the impoverished, providing loans and credit, conserving forests and other natural resources, protecting civil rights, and educating those who work in agriculture.

Photos courtesy of USDA
Left: A USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service inspector checks poultry for cleanliness and tests for avian influenza in Accomac, Va. Right: These pasture-raised pigs were produced in Rockville, Va., through the use of methods that exceed the standards needed for certification under USDA's National Organic Program. (Photos courtesy of USDA)

The USDA's Agricultural Research Service, for example, which was created in 1953, has grown to include 2,200 scientist and postdoctoral employees and 6,200 other employees. The agency's researchers have worked to improve food safety, animal health, and agricultural production through fields such as vaccine development, diagnostic test development, and pest control.

APHIS' duties also have expanded since the agency was created in 1972, Dr. Parham said. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, APHIS Wildlife Services used its airboat fleet to rescue more than 300 people from New Orleans floodwaters. About 50 veterinarians and other wildlife specialists helped rescue and shelter displaced livestock, pets, and research animals, saving about 11,000 small animals and 3,000 large animals.

APHIS also trains dogs to find prohibited fruit, plants, and meat at international airports and border crossings.

Feeding an expanding nation

As people moved west and refrigerated railroad cars helped meat production grow following the Civil War, veterinarians, ranchers, and meat packers lobbied for a single federal entity to eradicate livestock diseases, according to FSIS information. An editorial in the January 1881 edition of the American Veterinary Review (which became JAVMA in 1915), for example, lamented the spread of livestock diseases such as pleuropneumonia and questioned when the federal government would establish a veterinary sanitary department. The USDA developed a veterinary division in 1883, and it became the Bureau of Animal Industry in 1884. The bureau was intended to prevent diseased animals from becoming food, and it would gain export inspection duties in the 1890s.

Dr. Sidrak said that discussion of meat and poultry inspection frequently starts with the reforms implemented after publication of Upton Sinclair's 1905 novel "The Jungle," which described animal cruelty and unsanitary conditions in the Chicago meat-packing industry and led President Theodore Roosevelt to sign the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1906. The Pure Food and Drug Act was signed the same year.

The USDA gained authority over poultry inspection and humane slaughter in the late 1950s, more authority over movement of unfit meat in the late '60s, and egg product inspection duties in 1970, Dr. Sidrak said. The provisions on humane treatment of animals were expanded in 1978, and meat testing underwent "revolutionary" change in the mid-1990s, when the agency implemented its rules on pathogen reduction and hazard analysis and critical control point systems. The rule effective in July 1996 required establishments to develop sanitation standards and implement regular microbial testing, established pathogen reduction standards, and required the use of controls to improve product safety.

FSIS veterinarians work in U.S. slaughter operations in a supervisory and technical position, and their rich backgrounds in subjects such as microbiology, zoonotic disease, and pharmacology qualify them for other agency roles such as work in pathology laboratories or facilities that test for drug residues, Dr. Sidrak said.

The USDA's work gives people confidence when they look at USDA labels that the meat they are buying is safe, Dr. Sidrak said. The meat they buy has been inspected and passed by an FSIS employee supervised by a veterinarian.

"They look for that logo at the grocery store," he said.