Department of Agriculture

Fact Box

United States Department of Agriculture

Formed on May 15, 1862
Cabinet status- February 15, 1889
Preceding departments- Agricultural Division
Headquarters- 1301 Independence Ave, Washington, D.C.
Secretary of Agriculture- Thomas J. Vilsack
Employees (2007) 105,778
Annual budget (2014) $141.8 billion

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a cabinet-level agency that oversees the American farming industry. USDA duties range from helping farmers with price support subsidies, to inspecting food to ensure the safety of the American public. The department seeks to expand overseas markets for U.S. agricultural products and support international economic development; provide financing needed to create jobs; improve housing, utilities and infrastructure in rural America; and improve nutrition and health by providing food assistance and education. USDA farm subsidies have been the subject of much controversy for decades as critics say the assistance is distributed unevenly and manipulates the agricultural market. The department has also come under scrutiny for its failure to adequately protect American consumers from tainted foods that are not processed properly at slaughterhouses and other facilities. The current Secretary of Agriculture is Tom Vilsack.


The earliest precursor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was the Agricultural Division of the U.S. Patent Office, headed by Commissioner of Patents Henry Ellsworth in 1839. It was Ellsworth’s urging that led to the creation of the division; the Commissioner had a strong interest in agriculture and had collected and distributed seeds through members of Congress and agricultural societies.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln created the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Growing up on a farm, Lincoln was a strong advocate for homesteading, railroad expansion, and land grants to fund agricultural and engineering colleges. He often praised technological advancements in agriculture, such as using horse-drawn machines instead of manual labor and the potential usefulness of steam plows.

In 1865, a case of imported animals that had been identified as diseased livestock prompted Congress to pass an act to quarantine imported animals. Congress passed the act, but gave regulation duties to the Treasury Department, which did little to fix the problem. As a result, veterinarians and ranchers pushed for a more regulated solution.

In 1884, Congress established the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI), the predecessor to the Food Safety and Inspection Service, within the USDA to prevent diseased animals from being used in food and food products. Soon foreign markets began placing restrictions on U.S. food exports, prompting the creation of the 1890 Food Inspection Act that attempted to detect bad meat imports, as well as poor quality meat within the U.S. beef industry.

Upton Sinclair’s seminal work, The Jungle, published in 1905, would have a profound effect on federal regulation of the meat-packing industry. The book described the conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking houses in gruesome detail, and Sinclair gained widespread public support in urging President Theodore Roosevelt to have government inspectors review slaughterhouses and to pass the Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Meat Inspection Act.

Enforcement of the Food and Drug Act fell to the Bureau of Chemistry (a predecessor to the Food and Drug Administration), while regulation of the Meat Inspection Act went to the BAI. Both agencies were under the USDA umbrella. In 1912, the BAI also began inspecting eggs intended for use by the Navy, although there were no inspections of eggs for the general public until the Food and Drug Administration took on those duties in the 1920s.

The USDA took on a greater role during the Great Depression, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created programs, including the Rural Housing Service and the Rural Utilities Service, aimed at helping rural farmers and communities stricken by poverty.

In the 1950s the USDA was reorganized under President Dwight Eisenhower, who eliminated the BAI and other divisions and created the Agriculture Research Service (ARS) to assume their responsibilities. The Poultry Products Inspection Act was passed in 1957 to provide federal oversight of the rapidly growing poultry industry.

During the 1950s and 1960s the focus on consumer protection and safety shifted from contaminated meat and food products to mislabeling and adulteration of products from chemical additives. At that time, food inspections consisted primarily of visual evidence of contamination. Newer products created with more complex processing methods made in larger volumes caused new contamination concerns from pesticides, residue from drugs given to animals, and preservatives. In 1958, the Food Additive Amendment was passed to address these safety concerns.

The Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 amended federal laws to require states to conduct more adequate inspections of meat to raise quality standards. The law forced states to develop meat inspection programs that were as good as the federal government’s. If the state could not create one, the federal system would be applied. By 1968, poultry and meat inspection programs merged into the USDA’s Agriculture and Research Service. In 1972, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service was established to handle the regulatory responsibilities of the Agriculture and Research Service. These responsibilities were transferred in 1977 to the newly created Food Safety and Quality Service, which in 1981 was renamed the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

In 1993 an outbreak of E.coli killed four and caused 400 people to fall ill after eating at Jack in the Box restaurants. This incident prompted the FSIS to use a more scientific method to inspect foods, the Pathogen Reduction/Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Systems, which aimed to reduce microbial pathogens in raw products. This change made held industry accountable for producing safe food, and the government responsible for establishing safe food standards and maintaining proper oversight and enforcement.

A 2003 case of Mad Cow Disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), in the United States led to a long and intense investigation that ultimately led to the destruction of 255 animals suspected of being at-risk, but which ultimately tested negative for BSE.

What it Does

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers programs to help American farmers and ensure food safety for consumers. USDA aid includes distributing price supports and other subsidies to farmers, inspecting food processed at agricultural facilities, working to expand overseas markets for U.S. agricultural products, providing financing to expand job opportunities and improve housing, utilities, and infrastructure in rural America, and providing food assistance and nutrition education.

USDA Agencies and Offices:


Food and Nutrition Service: The FNS provides access to food and improves the diets of needy Americans through nutrition education and food assistance programs. The agency is responsible for the food stamp program, as well as programs that address the nutrition and feeding of women, children and infants, and food distribution. Through its distribution programs, the FNS is also able to subsidize the agricultural industry by purchasing and distributing surplus crops. The agency often finds itself at the center of ideological battles that question the role of the state in dealing with poverty and welfare and interference in the economy.

Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion: Part of the USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, the CNPP provides dietary information to educate Americans. The center develops and promotes dietary guidance linking scientific research to the nutrition needs of consumers. The center publishes dietary guidelines every five years and the food pyramid. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans provides guidance on food and physical activity choices. In 2005, the USDA released the MyPyramid food guidance system to replace the original Food Guide Pyramid. In a move to make the graphic more relatable, the pyramid was changed to a plate with the release of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines.


Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: APHIS is responsible for regulating genetically engineered organisms, administering the Animal Welfare Act and carrying out wildlife damage management activities. Additional areas of assistance include helping to contain and eradicate agricultural pests and diseases, and developing science-based standards with trading partners to ensure the country’s agricultural exports.

Food Safety and Inspection Service: FSIS is responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe from disease, and works to ensure that meat, poultry and egg products are labeled and packaged correctly to minimize contamination. FSIS uses scientifically based microbiological approaches to detect, research, and prevent food-borne hazards, including Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. FSIS laboratories also use data collection and reports, and risk assessments to guide risk-based inspection, which applies risk analysis principles to manage inspection programs. The agency also works with intelligence and law enforcement agencies to strengthen surveillance systems to detect intentional contamination of meat and poultry products.

Natural Resources

United States Forest Service: The USFS is responsible for managing public lands in national forests and grasslands. The U.S. forest system covers 193 million acres of public land, including 155 national forests, 20 national grasslands, and research and experimental forests. The agency maintains and cultivates these lands for public use and national interests through activities ranging from scientific research and development to firefighting, recreation maintenance, wilderness and wildlife protection, ecosystem management, and timber production. USFS policy was historically centered on timber production, but has evolved to include ecosystem management and sustainability and the preservation of recreation areas, wilderness, minerals, water, grazing, fish, and wildlife. In addition to the funding and management of the USFS, the agency has been the subject of debate and controversy for its fire management policy, logging practices, relationship with the timber industry, ecological sustainability and environmental protection, road building, wilderness and wildlife policies, watershed protection, and policies regarding local ownership issues.

National Resources Conservation Service: The NRCS administers the government’s conservation policy and practices by providing technical and financial assistance to private landowners and users. Aid includes economic incentive payments and assistance in meeting regulatory requirements. Although responsible for the regulation of private lands, the NRCS also assists with planning and implementing conservation projects together with tribes, local and state governments, and other federal agencies. Areas of technical and scientific expertise include animal husbandry, clean water programs, ecological sciences, engineering, resource economics, and the social sciences.

Rural Development

Rural Development: The USDA’s Rural Development (RD) division has been called the venture capitalist for rural America. The division includes a number of agencies created in the Great Depression that were successful in supporting the agriculture industry, electrifying rural America, and building community resources. The division operates more than 40 rural development programs focusing on housing, community facilities, water and waste management, and business and technological development. A 2007 Washington Post article that found that metropolitan areas received more than three times the amount of aid provided to poor or shrinking rural areas led to increasing criticism of the agency.

Rural Development Housing and Community Facilities Programs: The RDHCFP, also known as the Rural Housing Service (RHS), is an agency within Rural Development that administers aid to rural communities in the form of direct loans, loan guarantees, and grants for housing and community facilities. Programs focus on home ownership and restoration, farm worker housing, multi-family housing projects, community facilities, and rental assistance. According to a 2004 CRS Report to Congress, rural areas account for a “disproportionate share of the nation’s substandard housing.” In rural areas, homeownership is the principal form of housing, but residents are faced with higher development costs, limited access to mortgage credit, and pay more of their household income for housing than urban residents.

Rural Utilities Service: The RUS is an agency within Rural Development responsible for providing public utilities—including water, waste, telephone and electricity—to rural areas through public-private partnerships. The agency administers loan, loan guarantee and grant programs to eligible populations.


Farm Service Agency: The FSA was formed to support farmers in times of need with loans, commodity price supports, conservation payments and disaster relief assistance. The aid is meant to protect farmers from the risks that come with growing food that relies on market, food preferences, and the weather. The agency aims to assist farmers in adjusting production to meet demand in order to create a steady price range of agricultural products for both farmers and consumers. The agency also provides credit to agricultural producers who are unable to receive private commercial credit, in addition to giving grants to those that qualify. The FSA also works with farmers and their debtors to try to arbitrate agreements and head off foreclosure. In the last few decades, the FSA has been a source of controversy for the way assistance has been distributed, and the growing number of imported foodstuffs that Americans now consume.

Agricultural Marketing Service: The AMS helps farmers gain greater participation in overseas agricultural markets by promoting the sale of American agricultural products, including food, fiber, and specialty crops. The AMS provides testing, standardization, grading, market news services, and aids in oversees marketing agreement and orders. The agency also administers research and promotion programs, and purchases commodities for federal food programs. AMS also enforces certain federal laws such as the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act and the Federal Seed Act.

Foreign Agricultural Service: The FAS is the Agriculture Department’s lead agency in international activities. The agency opens new markets and increases U.S. agriculture’s competitiveness overseas. The FAS works on market development, trade agreements and negotiations, and analysis of market information. It also administers USDA’s export credit guarantee and food aid programs. The FAS seeks to support international economic development and trade capacity building and improve the global sanitary and phytosanitary system to facilitate agricultural trade. The service also supports economic development through technical and development assistance.

Economic Research Service: The ERS is responsible for developing and sharing information and research within the USDA and to other departments. ERS research informs public and private decision makers on economic and policy issues revolving around food, farming, natural resources, and rural development. Staff members are trained economists and social scientists who conduct research, analyze food and commodity markets, produce policy studies, and develop economic and statistical indicators. The research program was designed to meet the informational needs of the USDA, as well as policy officials and the research community. ERS research information and analysis is also used by trade associations, public interest groups, and the general public.

Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration: The GIPSA is charged with facilitating the marketing of livestock, poultry, meat, cereals and grains, oilseeds, and related agricultural products. The agency ensures fair trade practices and competitive market conditions in livestock, meat and poultry industries through various oversight, inspection, analysis, auditing, price protection and payment programs. GIPSA’s Packers and Stockyards Program (P&SP) regulates and enforces competitive conditions in meat and livestock markets, while the Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) deals with marketing, inspection, standardization, and quality assessment of grain and related products. The GIPSA has been the battleground for clashes between producers on one side and the slaughterhouse and packing industry on the other.


Agricultural Research Service: The ARS is the principal research agency of the USDA. It conducts more than 1,200 research and development programs designed to explore and resolve agriculture-related issues that affect the American farming industry and the quality of food consumed by Americans. The ARS focuses on research and development in nutrition, food quality, animal production, crop production, and natural resources and sustainability. The agency aims to provide the public with up-to-date information from studies that will be beneficial to consumers and the private agricultural sector.

National Institute of Food and Agriculture: Known formerly as the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), the National Institute of Food and Agriculture was created in 2010 following passage of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008. NIFA replaces the CSREES, created in 1994, which was itself a consolidation of the USDA Cooperative State Research Service and the Extension Service. NIFA funds and facilitates research, education and extension programs on agriculture, environment and human health at state and local levels, primarily through land grant universities and other partner organizations. In recent years, reform initiatives have aimed at trimming funding for the agency—and phasing out federal formula funding in favor of competitive grants. Since the late 19th century, formula funding for public agricultural research has been controlled at the state level by scientists who determine priorities for local research needs and issues. Competitive grants are directed at the federal level, with a research agenda that tends to be more national in scope, but that can arguably be influenced by lobbyists and special interests.

National Agricultural Statistics Service: The NASS conducts hundreds of surveys each year as part of the Agriculture Department’s farm census. The agency analyzes findings from surveys that cover production and supplies of food and fiber, prices paid and received by farmers, farm labor and wages, farm finances, chemical use, and changes in the demographics of U.S. producers.

Where Does the Money Go?

The Agriculture Department’s 2013 budget authority is $155 billion, according to the FY 2013 proposed budget. The 2013 discretionary level is $24 billion, which is the same as it was in 2012, representing a $2 billion decrease from 2011 that reduced or terminated selected programs, and was intended to achieve savings through administrative efficiencies and eliminating earmarks.

From 2002-2012, the USDA gave more than $301 billion in direct payments in over 4 million transactions, according to a query of Of those direct payments, 56% came from the Food and Nutrition Service, and nearly 39% came from the Farm Service Agency. The USDA also spent more than $227 billion in insurance payments, 97% of which went to individuals.

Grants given by the USDA totaled more than $217.3 billion from 2002-2012, with nearly 83% of the grants administered by the Food and Nutrition Service, according to During this time period, the USDA also spent more than $48 billion on contracting.

The top contractor recipients and their percentage of all contracting during this time period include:

1. Archer Daniels Midland Company $2,104,160,102  (4.38%) 

2. Cal Western Packaging Corporation $1,028,367,984  (2.14%) 

3. Bunge Limited    $830,462,340  (1.73%) 

4. Cargill Incorporated    $815,637,385  (1.70%)

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group found that USDA subsidies in the United States totaled $246.7 billion from 1995-2009 and that the top 10% collected 74% of all subsidies. The Environmental Working Group had previously found, in 2007, that while the USDA’s Farm Service Agency is supposed to provide subsidies to farmers across the country, most of this federal support goes to just 19 congressional districts, accounting for half of federal crop subsidies paid between 2003 and 2005. During this same time period, two-thirds of farmers didn’t collect any farm bill subsidies at all.

Data for Department of Agriculture