National Consumers League

Food

NCL Food Issues

Happy birthday to two hallmark food safety laws

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Birthday candles on a cakeThis week marks the 106th anniversary of the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act, two landmark pieces of consumer based legislation which established the modern food protection system as we know it. Without these two important pieces of legislation, our food system in this country would be virtually unrecognizable.

It is these pieces of legislation that provide the basic framework for food safety in this country. Founded in 1899 as an organization dedicated to protecting and promoting the rights of both workers and consumers, the National Consumers League, led by Florence Kelley, played a major part in getting these two important pieces of legislation passed.

Spurred by chilling descriptions of the horrible conditions common in meat-packing plants that Upton Sinclair described in his seminal work The Jungle, published in 1905, Congress passed the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. The law mandated antemortem inspection of livestock, postmortem inspection of each carcass and the continuous inspection of slaughter by U.S. Department of Agriculture employees. The Act also established sanitary standards for slaughtering facilities for the first time. It was this Act which created our modern-day Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which provides inspection in all the slaughterhouses around the country, ensuring that we have safe and wholesome meat to consume.

The Pure Food and Drugs Act, also of 1906, created the modern-day U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), though it would not be known by that name until the 1930s. This Act not only established the FDA as we know it, it also made it illegal to sell adulterated and misbranded food and drugs across state lines. For the first time, consumers had legal protection of their right to pure food and drugs.

Though the contemporary USDA and FDA may be different in some ways than they were in the early 20th century due to new laws which have updated the requirements for both agencies, the two laws laid the foundation for agencies focused on consumer protection. It is with pride at our involvement in the establishment of these laws that NCL wishes them a happy 106th birthday!