Food Label History

Food labels have been mandatory in the United States since the 1990s, but they have been in the making since the 1860s. What began as an agricultural research and development project quickly morphed into a food safety organization. After the Civil War, as interstate commerce picked up, there was a need for standardized weights, measures, and manufacturing practices.

By the 1870s concern for quality of traded goods prompted the pure food movement. These activists urged lawmakers to make food adulteration a crime. At the time, chemical preservatives went uncontrolled, milk was unpasteurized, and ice was the only form of refrigeration. Cottonseed oil was routinely sold as lard, and glucose syrup made from wheat and corn was used as a cheaper form of sugar.

And unbeknownst to the consumer, medical “tonics” routinely contained opium, morphine, cocaine, and heroin. In 1903, volunteer “poison squads” ate foods tainted with chemical preservatives to demonstrate their effect on human health.


After the Civil War, each state had its own food regulations. It was common for food companies to produce different versions of the same product, in varying degrees of quality, to comply with different state laws.

The Jungle

Frequent food-related illness and death fueled the pure food movement with the help of women’s groups and magazines, which frequently printed articles reporting on the horrors of food contamination.

Finally, in 1906, a novel entitled The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, described the horrific conditions of the Chicago meatpacking industry. That same year, the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act were passed, and a federal agency was created to protect consumers.

The Bureau of Chemistry enforced the law, but in order to allow them more resources for agricultural research, the enforcement shifted to a new agency, the Federal Drug and Insecticide Agency. The department was so-named until the 1930s, when insecticide control was diverted, and it became the FDA.


Curiously, The Jungle began as a social commentary on the labor movement in the United States. While the majority of the book’s content revolved around appalling work conditions and unfair labor practices, it was the treatment of the meat itself that garnered the most attention, much to Mr. Sinclair’s disappointment.

Modern FDA

Regulation of packaged food began in 1913 with legislation requiring that foods have clearly labeled weight, measure, or numerical count of their contents.

In the 1930s, generalized quality ratings were required. They weren’t very telling, as the only requirement was either “standard,” “below standard,” or “above standard.” Not until the 1960s were nutritional content and an ingredients list required on packages. The FDA reviewed every label for accuracy.

In 1990 the Nutritional Label Education Act regulated health claims made on food labels, such as “light” and “low-fat.” In 1992 the Nutrition Facts Panel first appeared, showing per-serving nutritional information.

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