The War Over Benzoates and Food Safety Regulations:
Harvey Washington Wiley was the head of the Department of Agriculture’s chemistry division in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and had spent his life studying food adulterations (Gaughan). Growing up in the Midwest, Wiley was already acquainted with farming and food when he began studying medical sciences at Harvard. Wiley identified a problem with the recent industrialization of the food supply, saying that the mass consumption of canned and preserved foods was putting Americans at risk because there were no regulations to make sure foods were stored and shipped properly. Petitioning “state governments to pass regulatory legislation of their own,” and finding some success, Wiley began to make a name for himself in the political sphere. He would quickly encounter “industry opposition,” which “manifested itself in years of setbacks on Capitol Hill.” Wiley and others were mocked and derided for pushing legislation that reportedly showed nothing but a lack of business sense. “By September 1901, Wiley had emerges as the nation’s leading authority on food and drug adulteration, but he had had frustratingly little to show for it at the federal level.” That would all change with the backing of President Theodore Roosevelt himself. Roosevelt’s concern stemmed from a personal experience while serving as a combat officer on the island of Cuba in 1898. The army had “ordered the shipment of thousands of pounds of canned meat” to feed the hungry troops, but they only found that, “the meat turned out to be spoiled,” when hundreds of men who had already eaten the poisonous food died from the oversight. Roosevelt was infuriated by the incident and threw his weight behind Wiley’s food regulation bill, taking a “then-unusual step of personally lobbying Congress on the bill’s behalf,” even making passage of the bill, “one of the major priorities of his second term.” The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was a landmark piece of legislation passed to make sure people would stop getting sick from unregulated foodstuffs. Almost immediately after the bill passed, Upton Sinclair published his The Jungle, forever “[vindicating] Wiley’s lifelong efforts,” by revealing the atrocities of the meatpacking industry. Even with the passage of the bill, Wiley and Roosevelt encountered resistance from smaller food manufacturers who could not. or did not want to, accept the new regulations. Other producers, like H. J. Heinz, were actually huge supporters of the bill itself because it required everyone to expend the money to meet safety standards that they had already been meeting for decades. (Gaughan)
Benzoates in tomato ketchup were long considered a danger to consumers’ health, and the new regulations made sure producers like Heinz, who rid his ketchup of benzoates, had an equal playing field of competitors. Heinz’ focus on a quality product would eventually lead him to wanting to find the safest ways to produce ketchup in mass quantities. This could be quite expensive in a market that was unregulated, with some producers hawking substandard wares made without safety precautions, so when food regulations came about, Heinz was actually a proponent of the more stringent laws. Large companies like Heinz, “had much higher standards of sanitation and product purity than their competitors, a fact that put them at a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis their less savory market rivals who could sell inferior products at a lower price.” The new regulations effectively, “rewarded corporations that already had high standards because it forced their competitors to engage in expensive improvements in sanitation and product quality.” (Gaughan)
- Gaughan, Anthony. “Harvey Wiley, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Federal Regulation of Food and Drugs.” LEDA at Harvard Law School (2004): n. pag. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.