The FDA and government regulation of food safety

Posted on August 19, 2009. Filed under: American history, Economics, Politics | Tags: , , , |

Part 2 in the series, basically Truth v. Myth, on whether the federal government can be trusted to compassionately and capably protect the public health and well-being, in which we continue our look at the founding of the Food and Drug Administration.

We’ve seen the dangerous and criminal state of food production in the U.S. by the turn of the 20th century. Starting in the late 1800s, some U.S. food manufacturers were petitioning the government to regulate their industry. These were manufacturers that actually spent the money to produce good-quality food, and they were afraid of being driven out of business by those companies that saved a fortune by pasting ashes together, canning it and calling it potatoes. (It’s amazing how many things were canned early on. Potatoes are one example. Even in the 1930s—I saw a movie from the late-30s where a woman says she’s running to the store to buy a can of potato salad.)

Farmers also protested that they took the blame for adulterated butter, eggs, and milk even though they sent good quality material to the manufacturers. “Shady processors …deodorized rotten eggs, revived rancid butter, [and] substituted glucose for honey” (Young, “The Long Struggle for the 1906 Law“).

During the Populist era of reform, one bill for federal food manufacture standards managed to clear the Senate but was blocked in the House. Congressional representatives, well-paid by shady manufacturers’ lobbies, blocked every clean food and drug law that came to them. One bit of progress was that in 1890-1 meat was set aside for special inspection after a scare in Europe over tainted pork from America led to a ban of U.S. meat on the continent. Later in that decade, tainted beef sickened U.S. soldiers in Cuba fighting the Spanish-American War, causing a furore at home. The culmination of the meat uproar was the famous publication, in 1906, of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which described in a brutally unsparing section how meat was processed at the great packing houses in Chicago, detailing the rats, feces, human fingers, and floor sweepings that were incorporated into the finished product. American consumers boycotted meat, with sales falling by half.

This was enough to get Congress to finally act on President Roosevelt’s December 1905 demand for a pure food bill. It wasn’t as easy as it should have been–there was still plenty of resistance in both houses. But thanks to pressure from the president and Dr. Harvey Wiley, a longtime pure food advocate who would be placed in charge of its enforcement, the Pure Food and Drugs Act was passed in 1906.

There was protest from criminal food manufacturers. Whiskey producers complained the loudest, as they were the largest producers of quack medicines. Quack medicines actually accounted for more advertising dollars than any other food or product in the nation in 1906. Their manufacturers claimed the federal government had no right to “police” what consumers chose to buy. This, of course, ran on the incorrect presumption that consumers knew what was in the products they consumed and decided to take the risk (Janssen, “The Story of the Laws behind the Labels”).

Many manufacturers of impure foods claimed that being forced to list ingredients on their labels would put them out of business. Their secret recipes would be exposed! The cost of printing long labels would bankrupt them! Such “technical” labels would turn off customers! Of course, none of this came to pass. Americans were grateful for protection from fraudulent food and medicine, and the Act would go through a few more iterations. The Bureau of Chemistry created to enforce the Act would become the Food and Drug Administration in 1937, and cosmetics would be added to its charges in 1938 when the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was signed by FDR.

The FDA was weakened in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Food supplements, like vitamins and diet potions, are not subject to FDA scrutiny, and are the new quack medicines, just as dangerous and fradulent as 19th-century snake oil. The organization has had its funding cut by deregulation-minded politicians who wanted to re-establish a completely free marketplace for food and drugs.

This negative turn of events merely proves that bad things happen to our food and drugs supply when the federal government relaxes or impairs its oversight of that market. A strong FDA is a vital necessity to American manufacturers and consumers, and a shining example of the power of good federal management of consumer health and well-being to drastically improve both.

Next time, the federal government and car safety.

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