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Food Standards and the Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich

From:  Food, Science, Policy, and Regulation in the Twentieth Century:  International and Comparative Perspectives,  David F. Smith and Jim Phillips, eds. (London and New York:  Routledge, 2000) pp. 167-188.

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Britain’s 1875 and 1899 Sale of Food and Drugs Acts were similar in intent to the 1906 US Pure Food and Drugs Act, as Michael French and Jim Phillips have shown. Both statutes defined food adulterations as a danger to health and as consumer fraud. In Britain, the laws were interpreted and enforced by the Local Government Board and then, from its establishment in 1919, by the Ministry of Health. Issues of health rather than economics, therefore, dominated Britain’s regulatory focus. The US Congress, in contrast, rather than assigning enforcement of the 1906 Act to the Public Health Service, or to the Department of Commerce, as some had advocated, charged an originally obscure scientific bureau in the Department of Agriculture with enforcement of its 1906 statute. In the heyday of analytical chemistry, and in the midst of the bacteriological revolution, Congress transformed the Bureau of Chemistry into a regulatory agency, fully expecting that science would be the arbiter of both health and commercial issues. Led by ‘crusading chemist’ Harvey Washington Wiley, the predecessor of the modern Food and Drug Administration initiated food regulatory policies that were more interventionist from their inception. [1]

Debates about the effects of federal regulation on the US economy have been fierce, with economists and historians on both sides of the issue generating a rich literature. In general, however, the weight of evidence supports the conclusion that business itself benefited from the trials and tribulations of early federal regulation.[2]Eliminating spoilage and waste, while gaining the confidence and good will of consumers, also proved good for business.[3] During World War One, and then amidst the Great Depression, however, this early lesson was revisited. In this setting, it is a uniquely American creation, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich (white bread, jelly, and peanut butter) that both illustrates and contains the basic ingredients of the United States’ subsequent food standards programme.

 [1]In 1927, the regulatory part of the Bureau of Chemistry became the Food, Drug,
Insecticide Administration, renamed the Food and Drug Administration in 1930. Extensive documentation on the history of FDA is maintained in the FDA History Office, Rockville, MD.

 [2]J. Young, Pure Food, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1989, pp. 273–291.
[3]Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Law Administrative Reports, 1908-1949, New York, Commerce Clearing House, 1951, p. 355. Hereafter cited as Annual Reports.


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