"Why Your Food Isn't Safe," Madeline Drexler, October 2011, Good Housekeeping
A historical look<
"The Jungle," by Upton Sinclair graphically depicted Chicago’s meatpacking industry and was a major factor in the government's decision to pass the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.
A Historical Look
Our food safety laws are more than a century old. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which established the duty of the federal government to regulate foods other than meat and poultry, and to prohibit the interstate sale of food misbranded or adulterated with chemical preservatives–a structure that’s now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In response to Upton Sinclair’s 1905 novel "The Jungle," which graphically depicted Chicago’s meatpacking industry, lawmakers passed the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. That law set sanitary standards for butchering and led to daily United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspections in slaughterhouses.
Enlightened as these measures were at the time, they couldn’t keep up with the shifting nature of foodborne outbreaks, which have grown exponentially more complex. In our giant food economy of scale, when things go wrong, they go wrong in a big way. Mass-distributed items with spotty or low-level contamination are consumed by people living far from the source. This leads to a new, insidious kind of epidemic: one with low attack rates but huge numbers of dispersed victims. New disease-causing agents are always on the horizon. Thirty years ago, today’s most fearsome threats–such as Campylobacter pylori, Listeria monocytogenes, and E. coli O157:H7–were overlooked or yet-to-be-discovered. Even today, countless mysterious organisms are lurking.
Since the mid-1970s, experts have continually sounded such alarms about gaps in the federal food safety system. In 1998, the National Academy of Sciences cited“at times archaic food statutes” that hamper science-based decision-making. In 1999, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that our “fragmented system was not developed under any rational plan but was patched together over many years to address specific health threats from particular food products.”
The photographs on this page of a beef processing plant were taken in 1900 by Chicago-based photographer George R. Lawrence Co.
Unless otherwise noted, all content about foodborne illness and food safety policy is written by Madeline Drexler, Schuster Institute senior fellow.
Copyright © 2011 Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, Waltham, MA.
Last page update: September 17, 2011