Food-processing industries Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

From its modest beginnings during the American Industrial Revolution, the food-processing industry in the United States evolved into a trillion-dollar enterprise exercising enormous economic, political, social, and cultural influence over people’s eating habits as well as their health.

Throughout the early history of the American colonies and the United States, food production and processing were largely in the hands of individuals on small farms. Over time, farmers increasingly made use of mills to grind their wheat into flour, and as urban areas grew in population, many families could no longer produce all the food they needed. Various industries stepped in to meet this demand. Some scholars also single out the military needs of large armies and navies as another impetus for the growth of mass-market food processing.Food-processing industries[Food processing industries]

Early Technology

An early example of the development of modern food-processing technology was the inventor Oliver Evans’s automated flour mill outside Philadelphia. Patented during the late eighteenth century, this factory, consisting of an ingenious system of integrated conveyors, elevators, and scales, was not just the first fully automated food-processing system but the first process of any kind to be automated. Evans’s widely infringed system spread throughout the young country, and Buffalo and Rochester, New York, became national flour-milling centers. With the growth of these and other cities, consumers welcomed nationally distributed, inexpensive foodstuffs, even though small, local processors often suffered.

Because many foods deteriorated during storage and transport, ways of preserving them after processing became essential. Developed in Europe, hermetic Canningcanning of food was brought to the United States in 1817 by William Underwood, and in 1825, Thomas Kensett received the first American canning patent. He used cylindrical tin cans to hold various foods, which were heated before the cans were sealed. Initially, such canned foods as lobster were affordable only to the wealthy, but during the 1840’s and 1850’s, canned fruits, vegetables, and fish were marketed to travelers, especially those crossing the continent to California in search of gold.

Early in the nineteenth century, the processing of meat took place mostly in local Meatpacking industryslaughterhouses that provided their customers with not only fresh meat but also such processed meats as smoked, pickled, and salted beef, pork, and mutton. However, by mid-century, the processing of meats had become the domain of large enterprises in Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis. In these and other cities the processing of meats had become automated, and a national system was established to distribute the products. Particularly significant was the way in which pork was processed. Workers hung gutted pigs from hooks attached to an overhead moving device that brought the carcasses to one butcher after another, who removed various body parts (this disassembly line would later influence Henry Ford’s assembly line for automobiles).

Because food was a necessity for soldiers and civilians of the North and South during the U.S. Civil War, U.S.;food processingCivil War, heightened wartime demands stimulated the food-processing industry. Although fresh foods continued to be consumed, shortages occurred because so many men left farms to fight. The food industry expanded to mitigate the crisis, and midwestern mechanized agricultural production and canneries proved to be very important to the ultimate Northern victory. The Underwood Company produced deviled ham, the Borden Company made condensed milk, and the Van Camp Company produced pork and beans. Other companies created sauces that rendered the dried and salted meats palatable, such as Len and Perrins’s Worcestershire Sauce and the McIlhanny Company’s Tabasco Sauce. Despite these efforts, many soldiers and civilians suffered from malnutrition during the war, especially in the Confederate states.

The Second Phase

From the Civil War to World War I, a period that some scholars have called the second phase of the American Industrial Revolution, food processing became more scientific and systematic. Alongside large California farms and ranches, food-processing facilities proliferated, canning such items as tomatoes and olives. Firms created and marketed synthetic foods, touting their superiority to natural products. For example, Procter and Gamble’s Crisco vegetable shortening did not become rancid as butter and lard did. Henry John Heinz founded a company that produced such popular processed foods as ketchup, sauerkraut, and pickles, and the company began using its famous “57 varieties” slogan in 1896. Alphonse Biardot, a French chef who came to America in 1887, founded the Franco-American Company, which had initial success in marketing oxtail and green-turtle soups to gourmets. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, other food-processing companies had success with such cereal products as Quaker Oats, Grape-Nuts, Shredded Wheat, and Corn Flakes. The Campbell company’s condensed soups became so popular that the firm was able to absorb the Franco-American Company as its subsidiary.

The rapid growth of the food industry was due to scientific and technological research that provided the means for making more kinds of convenience foods. Increasingly food processing moved from the home to large factories. For example, more commercial than homemade baked products were made during this time. Aunt Jemima pancake mix was very popular, as well as the gelatin dessert Jell-O and such canned meats as corned beef. The phenomenal growth of the food-processing industry did not come without problems. Safety, consumer;foodFoods contaminated with infectious agents for botulism and typhoid fever sometimes caused serious illnesses and even deaths, as did certain food additives. In his 1906 novel, Jungle, The (SinclairThe Jungle, Upton Sinclair attacked the unsanitary conditions of Chicago’s meatpacking industry, but his criticisms helped to give the entire food industry a tainted reputation. As a consequence of these and other revelations, legislators passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which created the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), one of whose purposes was to ensure the purity and safety of American foods.

The involvement of the federal government in the food-processing industry increased during World War I through such agencies as the Food Administration, headed by Herbert Hoover. He tried to increase the quantity and quality of food by encouraging companies and citizens to increase production and minimize waste. His agency also regulated the wheat-processing industry, for example, by limiting the amount of grain going into the production of alcoholic beverages.

World War I Through World War II

The 1920’s constituted a time of rapid technological innovation in food-processing businesses. For example, rendering, the process by which waste animal products are transformed into marketable materials, increased profits, and dry rendering, in which raw foods are cooked in steam-jacketed cylinders, gave high protein yields, thus increasing nutritional content. Improved canning techniques, especially short, rapid heating, preserved the fresh flavor of foods. Through his 168 patents, Clarence Birdseye, ClarenceBirdseye perfected a process for freezing foods, which ultimately became the property of General Foods. As the food-processing businesses improved their mass-production methods, more and more families came to depend on their products. The food business grew in variety and complexity, as processors handled, transformed, and distributed gigantic amounts of the nation’s food. The Great Depression adversely affected raw foods more than processed ones, and by 1940, more than two-thirds of all American food passed through some processing.

Canning peas at a factory in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1937.

(Library of Congress)

During World War II[World War 02];food processingWorld War II, the federal government converted many American industries, including food-processing companies, to a war status, so that people supporting and fighting the war would be well fed. The need for safe, transportable, easy-to-prepare rations for soldiers forced the industry to develop new techniques for manufacturing, preserving, and packaging various foodstuffs. Scientists had discovered the importance of balanced diets and vitamins, and the Food Administration used this information to pressure companies into formulating nutritious foods. Civilian shortages of meat, sugar, and canned goods characterized wartime, though such companies as Wrigley’s and Coca-Cola managed to circumvent restrictions on sugar by convincing regulators that soldiers and sailors needed chewing gum and soda. The frozen-food industries also prospered because metal shortages led to limitations on the sales of canned goods. In general, the war was beneficial to the food-processing industry because the industry was able to develop many new products and improve its mass-production and distribution techniques.

After World War II

The growth of the food-processing industry in the decades after World War II was part of what some scholars have called the “Consumer Revolution,” in which food, like so much else in modern American life, was reengineered to maximize choice, speed, and convenience. The trend to transfer food production, processing, and preparation from the home to the factory intensified, so that, within the home, meals increasingly consisted of canned, instant, precooked, ready-mixed foods, and outside the home, Restaurants, fast-foodAmericans flocked to such fast-food restaurant chains as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken (later KFC), in which foods such as hamburgers, French fries, and fried chicken were served, often with high-sugar sodas made by Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Some feared that the phenomenal growth of the fast-food business would lead to the decline of small ethnic restaurants, further “homogenizing” American life. Evidence certainly exists that the huge purchasing power of fast-food chains transformed how cattle are born, raised, fed, slaughtered, and processed.

During this time, many food manufacturers used increasingly sophisticated chemicals in their processing: emulsifiers gave foods a consistent texture, artificial flavors enhanced taste, retardants prolonged storage times, and vitamins raised nutritional value. Advertisers helped create the desire for new processed foods such as Minute Rice and Cool Whip, which was neither whipped nor cream but a nondairy synthetic. Supporters of the food industry insisted that because of these scientifically produced foods, Americans were “the best-fed people on Earth.”

During the 1960’s and succeeding decades, various activists, often associated with the environmental movement, raised serious questions about the healthfulness of an American diet increasingly dominated by processed foods. In 1970, Jim Turner, an advocate in Ralph Nader’s group of lawyers, published Chemical Feast, The (Turner)The Chemical Feast: Ralph Nader’s Study Group Report on the Food and Drug Administration, which was extremely critical of the American food industry and the FDA that was supposed to monitor it for the benefit of the public. Safety, consumer;foodThe American food industry was also facing intense competition from such countries as China, Brazil, and Argentina. Nutritionists accused the food-processing industry of helping to create the “fattest nation on Earth,” in which 60 percent of American adults were overweight and 30 percent were obese. These nutritionists encouraged consumers to eat natural foods and to avoid processed foods. To a certain extent, businesses responded by reformulating some of their products as reduced-fat, cholesterol-free, and sugarless.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the American food industry was one of the largest in the world, employing several million workers. This industry had grown and prospered because it provided consumers with the new and convenient foods they desired, even creating “fun foods” for young children. These companies had become masters of a supply network that stretched from large farms throughout the world via many food-processing factories to the American consumer. Ironically, the growing criticism of processed foods did not result in substantial increases in the use of fresh foods but to an increase in the variety of take-home foods, some of them labeled “organic” or “healthy.” Whether health concerns can become an effective force in transforming the food industry remains to be seen. Market pressures will, as they have always done, play a pivotal role, but individual consumers often create these market forces, and an educated public can make food decisions that have the potential to create a healthier world.

Further Reading
  • Connor, John, and William A. Schiek. Food Processing: An Industrial Powerhouse in Transition. 2d ed. New York: Wiley-Interscience, 1997. Better as a source of statistical information about the food-processing industry than a narrative treatment, this book centers on the research, development, and management of an often-overlooked American business. The many footnotes serve as a guide to much fascinating industrial data.
  • Levenstein, Harvey A. Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. This new edition of a work originally published by Oxford University Press in 1993 focuses on the interactions between American consumers and the businesses that supplied them with processed foods in the period from 1930 to the early twenty-first century. Illustrated, with notes and an index.
  • Nestle, Marion. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. This book has been called a major contribution to the understanding of the relationship between science and politics in an industry that is vital to all Americans. An appendix on “Issues in Nutrition and Nutrition Research,” notes, and an index.
  • Roberts, Paul. The End of Food. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Though his focus is on the global food economy, the author analyzes how the American food industry is part of a system of making, marketing, and moving what people eat, and this system is increasingly incompatible with the health of consumers. Notes, bibliography, and index.
  • Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001. The author argues that the fast-food industry has brought about the “homogenization” of American society and played an important role in “American cultural imperialism” around the world. Fifty-five pages of notes, bibliography, and index.
  • Turner, James S. The Chemical Feast: Ralph Nader’s Study Group Report on the Food and Drug Administration. New York: Viking Press, 1970. Criticizes the FDA for sponsoring industrial food-processing and marketing practices that have harmed consumers. Notes and index.


U.S. Department of Agriculture

Beef industry

Cereal crops

Dairy industry

Food and Drug Administration

Meatpacking industry

Pork industry

Poultry industry

Sugar industry

United Food and Commercial Workers

Categories: History