Current food safety legislation is responsible for the various improvements to the nation’s food supply. Before the turn of the 20th century, however, few legal guidelines existed to help ensure safe food consumption.

Consuming food that is contaminated can lead to illness and even death. Historically, some of the most prominent outbreaks occurred in the early 1900s, including outbreaks of streptococcus in raw milk, botulism from canned olives, and a proliferation of salmonella cases from seafood.

Later in the century, extending into the early 2000s, food outbreaks included cases of listeriosis in 1985, E.coli outbreaks in 1993 and 2006, and a salmonella outbreak in 2008-2009. These noteworthy cases contributed to the expansion of food safety laws. While food safety outbreaks continue to occur, they have become more infrequent — a likely byproduct of more elaborate food safety measures and strict enforcement of such measures.

The Food and Drugs Act of 1906, the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, and the Food

Safety and Modernization Act of 2010 are the three most significant pieces of food safety legislation in United States history. What follows is a background on each law, along with an evaluation of each law’s impact.

The Food and Drugs Act (1906)

Upton Sinclair
Upton Sinclair | Image courtesy Wikipedia

Contributing to the passage of this law were muckraking journalists such as Samuel Hopkins Adams and Upton Sinclair, author of the 1906 novel The Jungle. In fact, it was Upton’s fictional work — a scathing indictment of the meat-packing industry — that helped to persuade public minds that additional food safety requirements were necessary.

The Food and Drugs Act was overseen by the former Bureau of Chemistry. The law’s premise was to prevent the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors.” Final amendments to the law were made in June of 1934.

The Food and Drugs Act and associated amendments made it unlawful to manufacture adulterated or misbranded foodstuffs. Additionally, the legislation prohibited the transfer of such goods via interstate commerce. For the first time, government authorities were granted the power to inspect food products and enforce legal penalties against those who did not abide by the law’s statutes.

The law effectively set the foundation for future food safety legislation. The Food and Drugs Act set an important precedent: that government has the authority to intervene with the production, marketing and transport of food — a notion that was altogether foreign at the time.

The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (1938)

The passage of this piece of legislation was, at times, painstaking. The bill was introduced to the U.S. Senate in 1933 and was not passed until a poisoning outbreak had claimed the lives of 107 people.

This was the first law that significantly widened the regulatory scope of the former Bureau of Chemistry, which had since been renamed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) addressed two main concerns: first, public safety — the mandate that products within the FDA’s scope meet safety and purity standards; and second, full disclosure — a statute within the FDCA requires that labels and other marketing communications are accurate, truthful, and complete.

The FDCA broadened the powers of the FDA in the regulation and enforcement of labeling requirements. The agency now had the ability to require that specific information be included in labels, including nutritional content. Further, the FDCA gave the FDA authority to inspect factories and approve or deny drugs for entry into the marketplace.

The FDCA and associated amendments continued to expand the powers of legislative bodies that were first incorporated into the Food and Drugs Act of 1906. Constitutional challenges to the law were commonplace after enactment, although most cases were subsequently dismissed by presiding courts.

Food Safety and Modernization Act (2010)

shish kebabOver 70 years after the passage of FDCA, the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) was enacted. This Act was arguably the most sweeping reform to food safety laws in history. Efforts in creating the legislation stemmed from the proliferation of foodborne illnesses from 2000 to 2010, prompting support from a variety of stakeholders, including private industry.

The FSMA effectively changed the course of government food safety functions. Most notably, the law switched FDA’s focus from a responsive role to one based on prevention. Other regulatory authorizations, including statutes that granted additional FDA oversight, inspection, and enforcement abilities, are included within the statutes of FSMA. Further, the law enables the FDA to work independently with public and private entities in ensuring effective food safety practices.

Notably, the law gives FDA full recall authority — something the agency had been seeking for years. Specifically, the FDA now has authority to immediately remove contaminated foodstuffs from the market.

Altogether, the FSMA issued new directive powers to the FDA and built upon its previous jurisdictional framework. Authorizations were granted or extended in a variety of areas — prevention, importation of food, response abilities, and enhanced inspection capacities among them.