NEW HAVEN – Those labels that you see on packaged foods listing their ingredients and nutritional values had their beginnings in an international scandal and in the efforts by governments to deal constructively with the public outrage that followed.
The scandal erupted with the publication in 1906 of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, a bestseller that detailed the experiences of a Lithuanian immigrant family working in America’s meatpacking industry. The public response to the book’s description of unsanitary conditions in the industry was so strong that the United States Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act – the first law to require labeling of contents on food packages – the very same year.
By 1910, according to The Manchester Guardian, “The Jungle Scare” had spread to the United Kingdom, where it had been taken up by “less scrupulous [sic] newspapers of this country,” with “slanderous” and “sensational” claims about the food industry. That may have been true, but the eventual effect was better food labeling laws in the UK, too.
Indeed, the scandal set in motion a sequence of laws in countries around the world that today require food labeling to go beyond mere lists of ingredients to include information about the vitamins, minerals, and calories that products contain. These labels are undoubtedly useful to consumers, but it is unlikely that many manufacturers, if given the choice, would have introduced them on their own.