STAT | Robert Califf is taking the reins as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration with the nation in a nutrition crisis. Americans are living shorter, less-healthy lives due to the foods they are being sold. The new commissioner can meet this challenge by harnessing the FDA’s effective but underused food-related regulatory powers, which were created with FDA itself for a similar food crisis more than 100 years ago.
At the turn of the 20th century, food was making Americans sick. Illnesses due to chemical and microbiological contaminants were among the top 10 causes of death. Food producers, eager to meet consumer demand for cheap, quick, appealing, and tasty food, were adding harmful ingredients without concern for people’s safety and were intentionally mislabeling food. Milk contained chalk and formaldehyde; canned foods had salicylic acid, borax, and copper sulfate; corn syrup was sold as honey; and colored animal fat from pig stomachs sold as butter. Food manufacturers were unchecked by government regulation, basic food safety, or labelling requirements.
Under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt and Harvey Wiley, a chemist working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal government was able to make the country’s food supply safer through research and policy. Wiley conducted groundbreaking research on food additives by testing them on a group of men that came to be known as “the poison guard.” This research culminated in sweeping food safety laws — and the founding of the FDA — through the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.
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