Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act

With the support of President Theodore Roosevelt and a diverse consumer movement, the U.S. Congress passed two watershed laws that provided Americans with some protection in the purchase of food and drugs.

Summary of Event

In the United States during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, food processing was becoming highly industrialized, with dubious chemicals used to preserve food and to improve its taste. At the same time, urbanization and the modernization of transportation were resulting in impersonal national markets that lacked the direct contact between consumer and producer that was common in an earlier age. In response to these new conditions, an emerging consumer movement called for the federal government to regulate the purity and quality of food and drugs sold in interstate commerce. Pure Food and Drug Act (1906)
Meat Inspection Act (1906)
Meatpacking industry
[kw]Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act (June 30, 1906)
[kw]Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act, Pure (June 30, 1906)
[kw]Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act, Pure Food and (June 30, 1906)
[kw]Act and Meat Inspection Act, Pure Food and Drug (June 30, 1906)
[kw]Meat Inspection Act, Pure Food and Drug Act and (June 30, 1906)
[kw]Inspection Act, Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat (June 30, 1906)
Pure Food and Drug Act (1906)
Meat Inspection Act (1906)
Meatpacking industry
[g]United States;June 30, 1906: Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act[01670]
[c]Health and medicine;June 30, 1906: Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act[01670]
[c]Business and labor;June 30, 1906: Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act[01670]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 30, 1906: Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act[01670]
[c]Trade and commerce;June 30, 1906: Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act[01670]
Roosevelt, Theodore
[p]Roosevelt, Theodore;consumer protection legislation
Wiley, Harvey W.
Sinclair, Upton
Wilson, James
Adams, Samuel Hopkins
Beveridge, Albert J.

In 1879, Senator Algernon Paddock of Nebraska introduced the first comprehensive bill to regulate food and drugs on a national scale. The Paddock bill passed the Senate but failed in a House committee, blocked by a powerful coalition of states’ rights Democrats and “Old Guard” Republicans who were committed to protecting vested interests and the status quo. By 1906, some 160 food and drug bills had been introduced into Congress, and eight limited laws had been passed, mostly dealing with imports and exports. Consumer advocates were somewhat more successful with state legislatures, with about half the states adopting some regulations. Standards of enforcement, however, varied greatly from state to state.

The most energetic and influential crusader for federal regulation was Harvey W. Wiley, the chief chemist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1883 to 1912. Wiley emphasized the need for accurate labeling of all dangerous chemicals. His most famous project, the so-called poison-squad experiments, Poison-squad experiments[Poison squad experiments] lasted from 1902 to 1907. A dozen young men volunteered to act as test subjects for experiments on the effects on food of borax and other preservatives. The results provided quantitative evidence of the negative effects of many preservatives. After this project, journalists often referred to Wiley as “Old Borax.”

Early in the twentieth century, reformers known as Progressives Progressive movement placed a high value on the issue of consumer rights, and they looked to the expansion of the federal government as a means of improving the general welfare. By that time, moreover, medical and chemical scientists had achieved impressive accomplishments, resulting in a widespread appreciation for the role of modern science. Conditions were thus increasingly favorable for a resurrection of the Paddock bill.

The public was shocked in 1901 when twenty children died from the effects of inoculation against diphtheria. The following year, Congress passed and President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Biologics Control Act, Biologics Control Act (1902) which required makers of vaccines and antitoxins to be licensed by the federal government. Manufacturers lobbied in favor of the law in an effort to restore public confidence and eliminate unfair competition. With public opinion sympathetic to more general legislation, Senator William Hepburn Hepburn, William of Iowa and Congressman Henry Hansbrough Hansbrough, Henry of North Dakota introduced a bill to regulate all food and drugs sold in interstate commerce. The Hepburn-Hansbrough bill passed in the House, but in the Senate the Old Guard, led by Senator Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich Aldrich, Nelson Wilmarth of Rhode Island, was able to prevent the measure from being reported out of committee.

Reforming journalists, called “muckrakers” by Roosevelt, were determined that the issue not be allowed to die. Numerous articles describing food- and drug-related horrors appeared in such magazines as McClure’s and the Ladies’ Home Journal, and especially influential among these was Samuel Hopkins Adams’s series titled “The Great American Fraud,” published in Collier’s Weekly from October, 1905, to February, 1906. Adams’s well-researched articles concentrated on the unscrupulous sale of nostrums that were either ineffective or dangerous, such as cure-all medicines that contained cocaine and other addictive substances. When the series was published in book form by the American Medical Association, it created a sensation among the reading public.

By that time, Roosevelt was convinced of the “righteousness” and popular appeal of food and drug legislation, and he recommended such a law to Congress in his state of the union address of December 5, 1905. The day after the president’s speech, Senator Weldon Heyburn Heyburn, Weldon of Idaho and Representative James Robert Mann Mann, James Robert of Illinois introduced versions of the Hepburn-Hansbrough bill into Congress. Recognizing a change in public opinion, Senator Aldrich decided to allow a vote on the Senate floor, and the bill was passed on February 21, 1906, by a vote of sixty-three to four. In the House, however, there were long hearings about the bill, with organized opposition from whiskey distillers and food processors. Speaker of the House Joseph Gurney Cannon, Cannon, Joseph Gurney a leader of the Old Guard, kept the bill from being placed on the House calendar, and by early March it appeared to be dead.

By coincidence, however, Upton Sinclair’s muckraking book The Jungle appeared for sale on February 16, 1906. Jungle, The (Sinclair, U.) Having investigated the Chicago packinghouses, Sinclair hoped to arouse sympathy for the conditions of the workers in those establishments and to promote the cause of socialism, but in the process he also included graphic descriptions of the filth and poisons that were introduced into canned meats. Sinclair was disappointed that the public read The Jungle as an appeal for food legislation. In his autobiography, he lamented, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

The Progressive senator from Indiana, Albert J. Beveridge, read Sinclair’s book and, recognizing its value for promoting food legislation, sent a copy to the president. Although Roosevelt reacted negatively to Sinclair’s “ridiculous socialistic cant,” he was horrified at the book’s descriptions of the packinghouses, and he instructed the secretary of agriculture to investigate the matter. He also appointed Charles Neill, Neill, Charles a commissioner of the Department of Labor, and James Reynolds, Reynolds, James a lawyer and settlement house leader, to visit Chicago to determine whether Sinclair had described the packinghouses accurately. In May, the two-man commission reported that the deplorable conditions depicted in The Jungle did not misrepresent the industry.

Informed of the Neill-Reynolds report, Senator Beveridge met with Department of Agriculture officials and formulated a bill that would require federal inspectors to enforce sanitary standards in packing establishments and approve of the quality of meat and its additives before the meat could be sold in interstate commerce. On May 25, Beveridge presented the bill as an amendment to the agricultural appropriations bill, and it passed the Senate without a dissenting vote. In the House, however, the Beveridge bill faced strong opposition; it had to get through the Agriculture Committee, which was chaired by Representative James Wadsworth Wadsworth, James of New York, a stock raiser himself. When Wadsworth introduced amendments that weakened the bill, Roosevelt released the Neill-Reynolds report to the press. After a public outcry, members of the House worked out a compromise that charged the government rather than the industry for the costs of inspection and put limits on the judicial review of federal inspectors. With the approval of Speaker Cannon, the compromise bill passed the House on June 19. After Beveridge and other Progressives reluctantly accepted the compromises, the conference version of the bill was approved quickly by both chambers. On June 30, 1906, President Roosevelt signed the measure into law.

Meanwhile, the public support in favor of the Beveridge bill had put irresistible pressure on the House to vote on the pure food and drug bill, and on June 20, Speaker Cannon finally allowed the bill to be reported out of the Rules Committee. Three days later, it was approved by a vote of 241 to 17 and then went to a conference committee, where it was strengthened. The resulting “Wiley law” forbade the sale or transportation of adulterated or fraudulently labeled foods or drugs within interstate commerce. Along with the meat inspection law, it was ready for Roosevelt’s signature on June 30, 1906.


Historians emphasize that the issue of food and drug regulation became increasingly relevant as modernization progressed. When U.S. society had been predominantly rural, with local markets, consumers tended to have face-to-face acquaintance with their sources of food. In contrast, the large-scale preservation of foodstuffs to be sold on a national market made it impossible for individuals to have personal knowledge of consumer products.

The combination of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act greatly extended the power of the federal government to regulate goods in interstate commerce, and, concomitantly, the two laws represented a decline in the idea that state governments alone could exercise police powers in the public interest. At the time, a number of states’ rights proponents, using a strict interpretation of the Tenth Amendment, questioned the constitutionality of the laws, but in Hipolite Egg Company v. United States (1911), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the laws were permissible under the authority of Congress to tax and regulate commerce.

In the short term, Progressives were often disappointed that enforcement of the laws was not more rigorous. Because the Pure Food and Drug Act was cast in broad language, federal regulators had to conduct lengthy and complex proceedings to establish standards for chemical preservatives, whiskey, and other items. Harvey Wiley was among those who wanted more energetic enforcement. Within a year after passage of the law, he and President Roosevelt strongly disagreed about whether saccharin is injurious to health. Wiley was even more dissatisfied with the policies of President William Howard Taft, and during the election of 1912, Wiley, although long a Republican, publicly resigned from the Department of Agriculture in protest, supporting the candidacy of Woodrow Wilson.

Since 1906, many debates have taken place regarding the specifics of food and drug regulation, but there has never been any serious suggestion that the two laws should be repealed. It was probably inevitable that the early enforcement of the laws would be rather weak, but over the course of the twentieth century the trend moved toward greater control. In 1938, Congress made a number of significant changes in the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, with additional requirements passed in 1958, 1962, and 1965.

The 1906 legislation was an important landmark in the movement toward consumers’ rights in the United States. Framers of the two laws rejected the extreme ideologies of socialism and laissez-faire, and they believed that government could provide adequate protection from harmful merchandise without destroying the benefits of the competitive marketplace. The Meat Inspection Act was based on the premise that the government has the responsibility to protect consumers from harmful products unfit for human consumption, and the Pure Food and Drug Act emphasized that consumers have the right to make informed judgments based on the accurate labeling of products’ contents. Contrary to some fears at the time, the laws did not lead to a government takeover of the food and drug industries, and businesspeople in those industries quickly learned how to prosper within a regulated environment. In general, the two laws of 1906 serve as examples of the constructive effects of moderate governmental intervention. Pure Food and Drug Act (1906)
Meat Inspection Act (1906)
Meatpacking industry

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Oscar E. The Health of a Nation: Harvey W. Wiley and the Fight for Pure Food. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. Emphasizes Wiley’s role, the importance of scientific investigations, and the publication of the findings of those investigations in technical journals, especially in the 1880’s and 1890’s, in bringing about medical and expert calls for national food and drug regulation.
  • Bloodworth, William A., Jr. Upton Sinclair. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Biography analyzes Sinclair’s work as a muckraker and political figure, including his role in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act.
  • Braeman, John. Albert J. Beveridge: American Nationalist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971. Excellent study of the life and career of the Progressive senator who wrote and sponsored the meat inspection bill.
  • Brands, H. W. T.R.: The Last Romantic. New York: Basic Books, 1997. Iconoclastic biography of Theodore Roosevelt.
  • Burrow, James G. Organized Medicine in the Progressive Era. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977. Stresses the medical community’s efforts at professionalization, its success with public relations strategies, its alliances with state authorities, and its links with Progressive reformers who wished to apply scientific findings to address social problems.
  • Crunden, Robert. Ministers of Reform: The Progressives’ Achievement in American Civilization, 1889-1920. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1982. One of the best treatments of the Progressive movement, concentrating on the civic religion and the moral indignation within the movement’s culture. Chapter 6 is devoted to the muckrakers and passage of the 1906 legislation, with anecdotes about the people involved.
  • Goodwin, Lorine Swainston. The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusaders, 1879-1914. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1999. Survey of the history of lobbyists and elected officials who fought for legislation to protect consumers.
  • Gould, Louis. The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991. A scholarly and balanced treatment of Roosevelt’s policies and ideas while he was president. Presents a useful account of Roosevelt’s role in both the passage and the early administration of the 1906 laws, with analysis of the various interpretations of the Progressive movement.
  • Harris, Leon. Upton Sinclair: American Rebel. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975. Highly personal biography of Sinclair details his relationship with President Theodore Roosevelt and the congressional machinations surrounding the Meat Inspection Act. Includes a helpful account of Sinclair’s ideology and his correspondence with Roosevelt.
  • Hilts, Philip J. Protecting America’s Health: The FDA, Business, and One Hundred Years of Regulation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Documents the history of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from its establishment during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Emphasizes the FDA’s regulatory role and its battles against entrenched business interests.
  • Root, Waverly, and Richard de Rochemont. Eating in America: A History. New York: Ecco Press, 1995. Food historian Root chronicles U.S. eating customs through history, including the advent of the food-processing industry and the public outrage that led to the Pure Food and Drug Act.
  • Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. 1906. Reprint. New York: Modern Library, 2002. The novel that brought corrupt food industry practices to international attention is one of the first major media exposés in U.S. history.
  • Sullivan, Mark. “The Crusade for Pure Food.” In America Finding Herself. Vol. 2 in Our Times. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927. A lively and interesting account of the personalities and controversies that led to the 1906 laws. As a journalist and major editor of the period, Sullivan was able to consult with individuals such as Sinclair, Wiley, and Adams.
  • Wiebe, Robert H. Businessmen and Reform: A Study of the Progressive Movement. 1962. Reprint. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1989. Provides an influential explanation of various reasons business interests supported or opposed Progressive reforms, with emphasis on entrepreneurs’ desire to promote efficiency and predictability through governmental action. Utilizes in great detail the records of national business groups as well as publications of local chambers of commerce.
  • Young, James Harvey. Pure Food: Securing the Federal Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. Examines passage of the act in detail. Illustrates the process of publicizing the findings of governmental and scientific investigators.

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