food adulteration, act of intentionally debasing the quality of food offered for sale either by the admixture or substitution of inferior substances or by the removal of some valuable ingredient. The Greek and Roman classics contain allusions to wine makers and dealers who colored and flavored their wine. In England as early as the 13th cent., bakers cheapened their wares or scanted the weight, and lawmakers for the first time made an effort to prevent fraudulent dealings on the part of butchers and brewers. In Great Britain in the 18th and early 19th cent., coffee, tea, and cocoa were placed under protection laws by Parliament, passed not so much in the interest of the consumer as to keep up internal revenues.
About the middle of the 19th cent. chemical and microscopal knowledge had reached the stage that food substances could be analyzed, and the subject of food adulteration began to be studied from the standpoint of the rights and welfare of the consumer. In 1860 the first food law framed in the interest of the purchaser was passed. That law, lacking sufficient means of enforcement, remained largely ineffective until 1872, when administrative officials were appointed and penalties for violation provided. In the United States the federal Food and Drug Act of 1906 was the result of a long and stormy campaign led by Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley. This law defined food adulteration and the misbranding of products; it provided regulations covering the interstate movement of food and penalties for violations.
The 1906 act was superseded in 1938 by the more rigorous Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act administered since 1940 by the Food and Drug Administration (now within the Dept. of Health and Human Services). The FDA is charged with enforcing truthful and informative labeling of essential commodities, maintaining staff laboratories, and formulating definitions and standards promoting fair dealing in the interests of the consumer. The 1938 act broadened the definitions of adulteration, misbranding, and lack of informative labeling; it provided for factory inspections; and it increased the penalties for violations. It was amended in 1958 and 1962 to define and regulate food additives and food coloring.
The federal law controls traffic from one state to another and is supplemented by local regulations that require food handlers to be licensed, thereby discouraging the spread of disease; it provides for the inspection by health officers of meat and other foods, of restaurants, and of dairies and cold storage methods. Imported goods that violate the provisions of the act may be denied admittance to the United States and if not removed within a given time may be destroyed.
Food may be poisonous for reasons other than deliberate adulteration; see botulism, food poisoning.
See J. C. Ayres et al., ed., Chemical and Biological Hazards in Food (1962, repr. 1969); B. T. Hunter, Consumer Beware (1971).