June 30, 2013 will mark the 107th anniversary of the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, a piece of legislation that may have saved more lives than any other in our history.

Before this bill passed, foods and medicines were not required to specify contents and many could and did contain toxic substances. Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, guaranteed to calm restless children including teething infants, contained morphine. Mother's relied on it without ever realizing they were giving their children an addictive narcotic.

The author of the Pure Food and Drug Act was a chemist named Harvey Wiley, who left his academic post at Purdue and went to Washington as a government chemist in 1881. He worked tirelessly building a coalition to pass the new law and testing food and drugs to determine if they were toxic. It took twenty-seven years to get the law passed. At the time newspapers were heavily dependent on advertising for patent medicines, many of which contained alcohol and narcotics, and as a result they were opposed to the law. It was caveat emptor in those days.

After the bill passed Wiley was put in charge of its enforcement, which was bitterly opposed by business and agriculture. It essentially killed the large patent medicine industry which had relied heavily on narcotics and alcohol to achieve its "cures." The opposition to enforcement was so vicious that Wiley eventually gave up in 1912 and left Washington to take over the laboratories of Good Housekeeping, where he developed the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Those who oppose all government regulation of business should think how many lives have been saved by the regulation of food and drugs in this country based on the scientific research and patient political action of Harvey Wiley so long ago.

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Upton Sinclair's novel, The Jungle, published in 1906, which portrays the deplorable health, safety and unsanitary conditions in the Chicago meat-packing industry was the ultimate springboard that finally got the general public's attention to this issue and motivated politicians to decide that food regulations must be established and enforced.  Although the characters in the story are fictional, The Jungle was an accurate and jarring account of the disgusting food-handling and working conditions and the practically slave-style labor that was present in industry at a time before any federal food laws and labor regulations were established.  Admittedly, The Jungle, overall, is basically a treatise for a Socialist-style government, the message is extremely loud and clear that even today in a free, capitalist society, government has to step up and regulate certain portions of our society for the health and general good of the public.  

Sinclair's novel is an important part of the story and I'm glad you brought it up. At the same time as the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Federal Meat Inspection Act also came into effect. Although the two acts were separate, they came into being simultaneously as the result of enhanced public consciousness in which The Jungle played a major part.

The funny thing is that Sinclair wanted to draw attention to the plight of immigrants but, that was completely overlooked.

Forgive me for going on a slight tangent, but The Jungle contains the following passage about a small gathering of immigrants inside the cramped kitchen of a run-down tenement building.  I think it's beautiful and displays the wonderfully descriptive quality of Upton Sinclair's writing.  It's a favorite of mine:

"There was no place to entertain company except in the kitchen, in the midst of the family, and Tamoszius would sit there with his hat between his knees, never saying more than half a dozen words at a time, and turning red in the face before he managed to say those; until finally Jurgis would clap him upon the back, in his hearty way, crying, “Come now, brother, give us a tune.”  And then Tamoszius’s face would light up and he would get out his fiddle, tuck it under his chin, and play.  And forthwith the soul of him would flame up and become eloquent — it was almost an impropriety, for all the while his gaze would be fixed upon Marija’s face, until she would begin to turn red and lower her eyes.  There was no resisting the music of Tamoszius, however; even the children would sit awed and wondering, and the tears would run down Teta Elzbieta’s cheeks.  A wonderful privilege it was to be thus admitted into the soul of a man of genius, to be allowed to share the ecstasies and the agonies of his inmost life."   ----   Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

One of my graduate students had a wife who was seriously allergic to a chemical used to preserve packaged food. It was forty years ago and I don't recall what it was, but she had to be extremely careful in restaurants because she could not be certain where they got ingredients.

We don't have enough such labeling for people with allergies.

When an ingredient (starch for example) has a biological source, small amounts of protein from the source are usually in the ingredient.  So for people with allergies, it's important to know what the biological source is.

Sometimes manufacturers refuse to disclose the sources of their ingredients, calling it a trade secret.  But if all manufacturers were obligated to disclose those micro-ingredients, none would be at a disadvantage.

For example I haven't been able to find a commercial "hypoallergenic" probiotic, for which the manufacturer will tell me what the biological sources for the culture medium are.  The bacteria will happily chomp and bubble away on pretty much anything, but it's still a "trade secret" - go figure. 

Probably manufacturers used that same trade-secret argument to hide addictive drugs, like opium in cough syrup and cocaine in Coca-Cola. 

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