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Laws governing the manufacture of foods and beverages have been in existence for thousands of years. In ancient civilizations, these laws were initially created to ensure fair trade practices through proper labeling and accurate declaration of weights and measures to prevent adulteration and for taxation purposes. Regulations governing the manufacture of beer can be traced back to the Code of Hammurabi, written in 1700 B.C. during the Babylonian era, and laws written to control the sale of wine and bread go back to the Roman Empire. During medieval times, the Assize of Bread and Ale was enacted in the 13th century to establish proper weights, quality standards, and prices of bread and beer sold in England. For example, each loaf of bread was required to be labeled with the baker’s indentification “mark” to regulate quality and ensure fair taxation. In 1215, the Magna Carta established standard measures for quantities of wine, corn, potatoes, and other goods to be sold or made available for sale in the English villages.
The American colonists also implemented food regulations soon after settling. In 1646, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted the Assize of Bread that was nearly an exact replica of the regulation established 400 years prior in Britain. The Massachusetts “Act Against Selling Unwholesome Provisions,” passed on March 8, 1785, is widely believed to be the first food safety law enacted by the fledgling U.S. government.
The beginnings of the U.S. regulatory agencies governing today’s food industries can be traced back to 1837 when Henry Leavitt Ellsworth was appointed the Commissioner of Patents, a position within the Department of State. Ellsworth sought to improve the country’s agricultural industry by widely distributing improved varieties of seeds. With the establishment of the Agricultural Department as a division of the U.S. Patent Office in 1839, Ellsworth became known as the “Father of the Department of Agriculture.” About 20 years later, President Lincoln established the independent USDA and appointed Isaac Newton as the agency’s first commissioner. In its early years, the agency was referred to as the “People’s Department” since it did not yet have Cabinet representation—this was not achieved until Feb. 9, 1889 when President Cleveland signed a bill finally elevating the USDA to Cabinet level.
The FDA, America’s oldest consumer protection agency, traces its origins to the USDA’s Division of Chemistry. In 1883, the agency appointed Harvey Wiley chief chemist who began investigating adulteration of pharmaceuticals and foods in the U.S. markets. Wiley and muckraking political activists worked tirelessly to raise awareness of hazards in these industries. Significant progress was made in 1905 when Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle,” a brutally honest novel that brought national attention to the horrific conditions in the Chicago meat packing industry at the time. Sinclair’s primary intention was to bring awareness of the poor working conditions of the immigrant workers. He stated change resulted “not because the public cared anything about the workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef.” Regardless, as a result of the public’s outcry, both the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drugs Act, also known as the Wiley Act, were signed on June 30, 1906 by President Roosevelt. These bills gave authority to the agencies in instituting mandatory inspection of meat-processing plants and to prohibit misbranded and adulterated food in interstate commerce. Two decades later, the Department of Chemistry was reorganized into a separate regulatory branch known as the Food, Drug, and Pesticide division and in 1930, the name was shortened to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).