Corruption and Reform? The Emergence of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the 1906 Meat Inspection Act
This paper explores the origins of federal regulation of food, drugs and meat. We argue that developments in these industries during the late 19th century—technological changes that gave rise to new and cheaper products, the creation of a national market for food and drugs, as well as scientific advance that made it possible for producers to cheapen their food and drugs in ways consumers could not easily perceive—profoundly affected producers, consumers, and bureaucratic officials. In such an environment, regulation of the industry was desired in order to pivot the competitive playing field, but also because of its potential to improve consumer information about product quality. Nevertheless, we find that Congress did not enact a federal law until 1906 because competing producer, bureaucratic, and consumer interests, with different assessments of the benefits of federal regulation, prevented the formation of an effective coalition in favor of federal regulation. We argue that muckraking journalism about the quality of food and drugs played an important role in building a political constituency in favor of federal regulation and in determining the timing of regulatory reform. Corruption in the courts or in the administration of state regulation does not appear to have been a major factor behind the emergence of federal food and drug regulation.
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