8 disasters that made it to our dinner tables when US food safety regulations were weak

8 disasters that made it to our dinner tables when US food safety regulations were weak
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

If you're going to be eating food, you want it to be safe. And while the definition of safety varies from person to person — some may religiously adhere to the five second rule while others consider expiration dates on refrigerated products mere suggestions — having some standard of food safety regulations in place is imperative to maintain a healthy population. 

Audio leaked from a Dec. 13, 2016 phone call with then President-elect Donald Trump and his nominee for commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, records the two discussing imported food. 

"If you look at Japan, what they do with food — they say it's not clean enough, and you have to send it back, and by the time it comes back it's all gone," Trump is recorded saying. 

"Exactly. And we oughta let them know we're gonna start playing the same game," Ross responded. Food safety isn't a game, nor should the issue of food safety be a tactic used to manipulate and force negotiations with other countries, but so it goes.

American safety is not just a question of foreign imports, but should also concern food made and consumed in the U.S. To put higher safety standards on imported products while simultaneously advocating for an elimination of regulations on domestic products is not just obscenely hypocritical, but nonsensical when considering legitimate health concerns. 


President Donald Trump has been a long time proponent of eliminating or drastically rolling back the FDA (or as Trump calls the government agency, the "food police"), which could greatly endanger consumers. He has also not been a big proponent of the EPA, especially when issues concern food-related causes like water safety. While the FDA isn't a perfect agency, they do a decent job at making sure your food doesn't kill you

In the 1960s the FDA tested foods for radiology contaminants
Source: 
FDAPhotos/Flickr

Originally founded in 1848, to scientifically evaluate agriculture products, the Food and Drug Administration officially got its name in 1930, following the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Law that made misbranded food and drugs illegal. Since, the agency has worked to protect consumers from product fraud and evaluate food and drugs for safety.

So what would life be like without federal regulation and inspection of the food we eat? 

In the word's of Trump: Not good.

We could be eating rotten meat

What's in your sausage?
Source: 
LIONEL BONAVENTURE/Getty Images

If you haven't read Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle, now may be a good time to catch up on the dystopian book that dives into the disgusting, de-regulated meat packing business as it functioned at the turn of the century. The gist: Rotten meat was encased as sausages and sold to consumers who were none the wiser. Also in those meat products? Toxic preservatives. After appointing a committee to investigate the meatpacking industry, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 into law, further setting down the foundation for an FDA that would look into the safety of consumer-facing food products. Once you've finished The Jungle, consider watching Sweeney Todd if you need more convincing our meat industry needs regulation. 

Gloveless food preparers could contaminate your food 

Typhoid Mary in a newspaper during her era
Source: 
© Hellenic Society of Gastroenterology

Has Trump appointed Typhoid Mary to a cabinet position yet? Alive in the same era as Frederick Douglass, Mary Mallon emigrated to the United States from Ireland around 1883 and worked for a wealthy New York banker as a cook. Soon, all 11 people in her employer's house had typhoid fever, a disease she carried, and though they attributed the illness to bad clams, the typhoid outbreak went on to infect 3,000 New Yorkers. Eventually discovered as the source of the disease and quarantined, Typhoid Mary lives on to be a cautionary tale about people with contagious and possibly fatal illnesses preparing your food. Safety first!

You wouldn't know exactly what you were buying

Mislabeled food products circa 1938
Source: 
FDAPhotos/Flickr

When you buy a pound of spaghetti, you expect to open the box of pasta and find a pound of spaghetti inside, right? Well, without the FDA you could find a box of dry sticks or half a pound of penne or really anything that the manufacturer wanted to sell in that box. Thanks to the Gould Amendment of 1913, food package contents must be "plainly and conspicuously marked on the outside of the package in terms of weight, measure, or numerical count." Now if only the FDA could label how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop... 

Food additives would remain a mystery

What's making this meat so cheap?
Source: 
JIM WATSON/Getty Images

All those mysterious multi-word ingredients you see on the labels of packaged foods may not necessarily be considered healthy, but at least you know they're generally considered as safe to consume. That's because once food started becoming more processed, the Food Additives Amendment of 1958 and the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list required that manufacturers of food additives can prove their product hasn't be linked to causing cancer in animals or humans. Of course, this research continues but without these regulations, who knows what cancer-causing chemicals would be added to our foods? 

Foods could be colored with cancer-causing dyes

The colors in these candies are generally regarded as safe
Source: 
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

After children became sick from eating Halloween candies made with orange dye, the 1960 Color Additive Amendment expanded beyond the food additives amendment to include a provision for manufacturers to confirm the safety of the color additives used in foods, drugs and cosmetics. This also includes the "Delaney Clause" banning the approval of any color additives that's a known carcinogen. Thanks to this amendment, specific yellow and red dyes were later banned for consumption thanks to research showing they carried a cancer risk.  Of course, both natural and chemical food dyes are still used in processed foods today, but the dyes being used cannot be proven to cause cancer and must be researched to prove they're not carcinogens, so that's an improvement from pre-1960. 

Babies may not get the proper nutrients from packaged formula 

Babies need their formula regulated by the FDA
Source: 
MARK RALSTON/Getty Images

The 1980 Infant Formula Act regulated products sold as infant formula, to ensure that they were safely produced for infant consumption and contained the proper nutrients and quantity of nutrients to feed a healthy baby. This act also separated infant formula as a distinct category of foods, mandating specific standards for infant formulas different and more appropriate to the product, than any food on the market. 

You'd just have to guess how nutritious your food is — and how much of it you should eat

Nutrition facts, as currently mandated by the FDA
Source: 
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Don't take your canned soup's informative nutrition label for granted. The per-serving nutrition facts weren't required on packaged foods until the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 mandated that certain nutrients be appropriately distinguished and labeled. The FDA is also responsible for food packaging ingredients lists to list ingredients in descending order and disclose if water has been used in the packaged food. If you'd feel uncomfortable buying a box of crackers or package of frozen meatballs without any ingredients or calorie information on the box, you need the FDA in your life. 

Allergens could be hidden in foods with no warning

Food labels must disclose when the product is manufacture in a location in which allergens are, too.
Source: 
Patrick Sison/AP

Those with severe allergies wouldn't be safe without the FDA's regulation. The 2004 Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires "the labeling of any food that contains a protein derived from any one of the following foods that, as a group, account for the vast majority of food allergies: peanuts, soybeans, cow's milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, and wheat."  Knowledge is power, especially if you're avoiding a potentially fatal allergen. 

Unless you want to live a in a world full of food poisoning, inaccurate labeling and unsubstantiated nutritional claims, you need the FDA, along with government agencies like the USDA and EPA, to set regulations protecting the general population for food-related atrocities. 

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Melissa Kravitz

Melissa Kravitz is a contributor for Mic. Her work has appeared on Thrillist, Mashable, Elite Daily, Time Out, Refinery29, Gothamist, Racked and more.

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