I think very few of us will disagree that food laws are very important. They are important, particularly to ensure the safety of consumers. In general, food laws are established to protect consumer safety and to ensure best practice in the food industry.

In the colonial period, that is, the period before independence, the regulation of food in the US was limited to just local and state government. The federal government got involved only if the food was imported. 

As it got closer to the end of the 19th century there was a greater need for federal involvement. This was because food production was now shifting from small farms and cottage-scale industries to “big manufacture”. So now, your food was being produced at a location far removed from where you lived. This led to devious manufacturers putting additives and concoctions in food as they wished in order to make more money.  

A man by the name of Dr. Harvey Wiley recognized what was happening and was very concerned. Dr. Wiley was a physician by training. In 1883, he became the Chief Chemist at the US Bureau of Chemistry, which was then a part of the USDA. Wiley wanted to help put an end to the use of dangerous chemical additives in food, but realized that he would have to prove that they were bad. Some of these questionable  food additives included borax, salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, sodium benzoate, and formaldehyde.

Wiley’s plan was to establish a “Poison Squad”. This was a squad of 12 men who agreed to be guinea pigs in Wiley’s lab for “the sake of science”. The men were provided with all their meals for 5 years. The meals were laced with different concentrations of food additives. However, the men were not told what these additives were and how much was in them. During the study a physician measured all their vital signs to determine the effect on their health.

Some of the men got very sick and were not able to finish the study. In the end, the research proved that all the food additives tested, except sodium benzoate, were unfit for food. So, this sparked support for legislation to prevent food manufacturers from putting these unsafe chemicals in food, and to improve the safety of the food system.

This led to the signing of the Pure Food and Drug Act on June 30 1906 by President Roosevelt, and the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Therefore Dr. Harvey Wiley is considered the “Father of the FDA”

Perhaps the second most important person affecting the transformation of the US food system was a novelist and journalist by the name of Upton Sinclair. Sinclair wrote a novel called the “The Jungle” in 1906. This book was Sinclair’s attempt to highlight the deplorable working conditions of immigrant workers in the meat factories in Chicago. During his research for the book, he got a first-hand peek into the unsanitary condition of the factories and the inhumane treatment of both humans and animals. The book sparked a public outcry, not over the concern for the workers, but over the poor food safety environment in which meat was being produced for the public.

Based on this alarm, President Roosevelt also signed the Meat Inspection Act on June 30, 1906 to improve food safety in meat processing facilities not only in Chicago but across the US.

Unfortunately, in spite of these two very important laws, there was more to be done by the legislature to improve regulation of food in the US. So, while Congress dragged their feet, tragedy struck. In 1937, a manufacturer of the drug, sulfanilamide which was used to treat strep throat, reformulated the drug to include diethyl glycol, a sweet tasting chemical,  to improve the taste of the drug. The manufacturer did this without any prior testing of the chemical to determine its effect in the medicine. But they were not doing anything against the law. This was allowable since no law said they needed to run any test before selling. The result was the death of 107 people, mostly children who had taken the drug. Many of them died a painful and agonizing death.

This tragedy led to the enactment of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) in 1938 to replace the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 which at this point was inadequate to protect consumers. This law gave the FDA authority to oversee the safety of food, drugs, cosmetics and therapeutic devices, and required that:

  1. Food companies bear the responsibility of proving that their food is safe, rather than the burden being on the FDA to prove that food was adulterated
  2. Safe tolerances for potentially poisonous substances in food and drugs be established
  3. New drugs be tested and approved before marketing
  4. Standards of identity for foods are established
  5. Federal factory inspections are implemented  
  6. Misrepresentation of foods be prohibited
  7. Food manufacturers include  the product name, product quantity, contents, and manufacturer’s/distributor’s address on their product labels

But, in spite of these changes, the sulfanilamide tragedy of 1937 was not going to be the last. For example:

  1. An outbreak of botulism in 1973 resulted in the need to establish the Low-Acid Food Processing Regulations
  2. In 1982, the death of seven people, caused by tampering and adulteration of Tylenol with potassium cyanide led to the enactment of the Federal Anti-Tampering Act in the same year
  3. In 1993, an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 from under-cooked patties at Jack-in-the-Box sickening over 700 people and killed 35, leading the USDA to reclassifying E. coli O157:H7 as an adulterant and requiring all meat processing facilities to implement HACCP to protect food safety.

Unfortunately, death, injury and catastrophe seem to have played the most significant role in the evolution of US food laws. Other change factors include: fear of economic loss, need for fair trade, and public pressure. This trend of waiting to do something until something bad happens or when we feel threatened, will probably continue.I guess, its just human nature. 


  1. Fortin N. D. (2009). Food regulation – Law, science, policy, and practice. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons Inc.
  2. Sanchez, M. C. (2015). Food law and regulation for non-lawyers – A US perspective. New York, NY: Springer International.
Courtney Simons
Courtney Simons is a food science professor. He holds a BS degree in food science and a Ph.D. in cereal science from North Dakota State University.
Courtney Simons on EmailCourtney Simons on FacebookCourtney Simons on Linkedin