Citizens and scientists in the United States began raising concerns about food adulteration in the 1870s with the Pure Food Movement. This movement was widely supported by the rising middle class, particularly by women’s leagues. Temperance societies drew parallels between food adulteration and alcohol, framing both as hazards to public health and safety, and commonly associated with poverty.
Harvey Wiley was appointed head of the Division of Chemistry in 1883 and immediately began research into the prevalence and effects of food adulteration. To study the effects of chemical additives, Wiley exposed healthy young male volunteers to ingest common additives and be observed for effects. He called them his “Poison Squad” and effectively brought together scientists and citizen organizations into a coalition.
Two decades later, Chicago resident Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle about conditions in local slaughterhouses. Sinclair was a socialist and workers rights advocate, but what shocked contemporary readers the most was the health dangers those working conditions passed on to consumers. President Theodore Roosevelt was pushed by the public to launch an investigation into conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking district.
The result of that investigation was the Neill-Reynolds report published in 1906, which backed Sinclair’s claims. Between this damning report, Sinclair’s bestseller, and the Pure Food Movement it was clear: the people demanded food safety be the government’s, not the consumer’s, responsibility. That same year, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. This new law defined food adulteration as consumer fraud and a threat to public safety.
In both England and the United States, these laws have been adapted and amended and new legislation has arisen as manufacturing technology has evolved, and new scientific insights have warned us that foods we thought safe aren’t. Commercial crops can no longer be grown in soil with a high lead content, for example, and drug companies are now required to test if their products are toxic before selling them. That’s only been required since the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, less than eighty years.
When Trump insists “People flourish under a minimum government burden”, I have to wonder which people he means. Certainly not the arsenic poisoning victims of Brantford, not the malnourished poor, nor the slaughterhouse workers, nor people made ill by rotted meat disguised to seem fresh.
It was bad business for companies that didn’t cut corners and substitute ingredients. The only people who really flourished with that minimum government oversight were unscrupulous, dishonest, unethical businessmen and factory owners: men like Trump. It’s easy to understand why he might fantasize this Quixotic battle against government regulations. He frequently runs afoul of them. It’s rare when consumers, government science agencies, and less egregious captains of industry can all agree, but on the matter of food safety, they have.
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