Most consumers in North America—in fact, most of the world—have lived in an era in which the food they buy has some type of product label attached to it. This label goes beyond just identifying what the food item is; it also provides information as to its nutritional value, ingredients, and other important consumer notices. However, this has not always been the case.
For most of modern history, there were few to no labels on food. People produced much of their own food and purchased the rest from the farmer, the butcher, or the baker up the road, in which they knew the items were fresh and local. There were no government inspections or labels. The astute consumer knew what to look for in a piece of fruit or a slab of meat and could tell if it was fresh by poking it, smelling it, or simply looking at it.
And there were few “trust” issues when it came to selecting food. The farmer sold or bartered many of his offerings with the same person who made clothes for his family, taught his children in school, or built his farm equipment.
However, as the world’s population grew, much of this trust began to evaporate, and concerns about the purity, safety, and quality of food increased. These concerns are what led to a history of food rules and regulations, along with the food labeling systems that are in place today—all enacted to help protect the consumer.
A History of Food Labeling
One of the first examples of a labeling system, of sorts, regarding food quality, appeared around A.D. 400 in the Roman Empire. At that time, vendors would stand on the steps of a central location in the city to sell their goods. Those with the highest quality of bread and other food products would stand on the highest steps. For the most part, this system worked. Consumers who could afford it knew to climb the steps for the highest quality food items.
Over the following centuries, rules and regulations were implemented to help ensure food was safe to eat. In the early 1200s, King John of England enacted the Assize of Bread. An assize was an ordinance or regulation, and this one stated that “upon every measure, bushel, weight, and upon every loaf, the name of the owner (i.e. maker) [be] distinctly written.” The attempt here was to inform the consumer as to who made the bread, and thereby help him or her determine if it was someone trustworthy. It also allowed the government to track down bakers who used inferior ingredients or marketed products that caused illness.
By the mid-1600s, Massachusetts, and later Virginia, adopted regulations very similar to the Assize of Bread. In time, they expanded labels to apply not just to flour and bread items but also to such things as meat and pork, wine, and especially butter. (At that time, butter was considered the most adulterated food product sold to consumers.)
Modern Food Labeling Regulations
What may be the most significant step forward in protecting the consumer and developing standards for food labeling in the U.S. is the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act passed in 1938. The statutes and regulations it put in place still impact the food labeling industry today. Among its provisions, many of which were novel and controversial at the time, included:
- A food product will be considered “misbranded” if its labeling is false or misleading in any way;
- The sale of one food under the name of another is prohibited;
- A food product will be considered misbranded if its container is made, formed, or filled in such a way as to mislead the consumer;
- The label must bear the name and place of business of the manufacturer or packer; and
- Information on the product label must be prominently displayed and easily readable by the consumer.
Today, with more and more food grown, produced, processed, distributed, and marketed all over the globe by millions of companies, the need for proper, understandable, and transparent food labeling continues to grow.