May We Know Our Food

By Harvey W. Wiley, MD

Summary: In 1907 Dr. Harvey Wiley was the most famous food activist in the United States, having helped prod Congress to pass the first federal food purity law in American history, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Dr. Wiley also happened to be the head of the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry, the forerunner of today’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and was charged with enforcing the landmark consumer-protection legislation. In this article from the The Pittsburgh Gazette Times, published six months after the law took effect, Dr. Wiley discusses “two ideas kept always in view in all the sections of the act,” that is, the misbranding of foods and the addition of potentially dangerous additives and preservatives to food products. Little did Dr. Wiley know when he wrote this article that his insistence on enforcing these provisions would lead to his dismissal only a few years later, as industrial food manufacturers and their allies within the government succeeded in not only ousting Dr. Wiley from his post but turning the very law intended to protect the country’s foods into a rubber stamp for introducing insufficiently tested chemicals into America’s diet—a mind-boggling political end run that persists to this day. For more on Dr. Wiley and the corruption of the Pure Food and Drug Act, see “Enforcement of the Food Law” and The History of a Crime Against the Food Law in these archives. From The Pittsburgh Gazette Times, 1907.

[The following is a transcription of the original Archives document. To view or download the original document, click here.]


May We Know Our Food

Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, Chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA], has for years fought for the enactment of a law designed to protect the public against adulterated foods. After a decade of labor, Dr. Wiley’s efforts were crowned with success last June, and as a result there is on the statute books of the United States today what is believed to be the best pure food law in the world. Under its terms this act went into effect on the first day of January, and Dr. Wiley, at the request of the Illustrated Sunday Magazine, has given an interview on the scope of that most important of all the acts of the present Congress. Dr. Wiley’s statement follows:

The importance of the food and drugs act that went into effect on the first day of the new year is perhaps not fully understood. It is a more far-reaching measure than even the legislators themselves comprehended but perhaps not more far-reaching than they intended. Its provisions are drawn on such broad terms as to let nothing escape, while they leave to the judgment of the Secretary of Agriculture the decision of very important questions affecting the wholesomeness of substances added to food and drugs.

There is no provision in the bill against the presence of injurious substances naturally in food subjects, since it was not intended by the act to criticize the products of nature. The addition of deleterious substances by the manufacturer, however, is forbidden by the law. Where substances are added that are not deleterious but dilute or otherwise change the character of the food, they are not prohibited provided their presence is plainly indicated on the label.

[Photo of Dr. Wiley, with caption:] Dr. Harvey W. Wiley.

There are two ideas kept always in view in all the sections of the act, namely, the provision against misbranding and the provision prohibiting the addition of deleterious substances. It cannot be said that one of these features is more important than the other; they are given equal prominence, and the offense against the law in each case is punished by the same penalties.

The act broadly defines food as consisting of all the substances commonly used as foods, beverages, drugs, and condiments by human or other animals. It thereby includes in its provisions the protection of domesticated animals as well as human beings. Thus, the adulteration of cattle food or the misbranding thereof is punished by the same penalties as those that attach to the adulteration or misbranding of human food.

Misbranding is defined in broad terms as constituting anything on the label that is false or misleading in any particular; also, goods that are not labeled at all are misbranded if they are imitations of or sold under the name of another article. Hence, the omission of a label and selling of a food under the name of another article is as much a misbranding as if a false name had been placed on the article itself.

Adulteration is defined in several sections. The addition of deleterious substances has already been mentioned. The abstraction of any valuable ingredient also is an adulteration. Coloring, powdering, or coating so as to conceal inferiority is an adulteration. In fact any sophistication of a food product by which inferiority is concealed or by which any valuable property is removed—or the substitution of a less valuable for a more valuable property without notice—are all regarded as adulterations. The presence in a food of any habit-forming drug, such as morphia [morphine], cocaine, chloral hydrates, etc., or any derivative or preparation thereof also is an adulteration.

Drugs are broadly defined in the act as any substance used for the prevention, cure, or mitigation of disease, whether taken internally or externally, whether for man or for other animals. Thus, domesticated animals as well as man are protected against adulterated drugs or misbranded drugs. The United States Pharmacopeia and National Formulary is the standard for drugs. Drugs may have other standards, however, if these standards are plainly printed on the label.

No preparation may be sold in interstate commerce if it fails to bear on its label the proportion or quantity of alcohol, opium, morphia, cocaine, cannabis, indica, or other habit-forming drug or any preparation or derivative thereof. Thus, the patent medicines that heretofore have been sold containing these injurious drugs no longer will be consumed by the public without knowledge of their dangerous contents; this is a long step towards regulating traffic in promiscuous remedies not recognized by the regular profession of medicine.

The importation of misbranded or adulterated foods from foreign countries is forbidden by the act. Thus, these foods never will be able to enter the country or be found in interstate commerce if the inspection at the ports of entry can be made sufficiently rigid. Foods that are forbidden sale or entry into other countries will not be permitted into this country if coming from such countries.

The labeling of beverages is an important feature under the bill. There can be no more “Chateau Yquem,” “Johannesburger,” or “St. Julian” made in the United States. There will be no more “Munich Beer” or “Pilsner Beer” made in the United States. The use of foreign names in any way to deceive or mislead is prohibited. The best that can be done in this direction will be that an American product may be labeled “A Type Of” the foreign article that it resembles provided that it really is a type of that article. We shall [have] no more domestic “Roquefort” or “Camembert,” but [instead] American products must stand on their own merits and must be sold under proper names, as should have been the case from the outset. If an American manufacturer desires to make a cheese in imitation of Roquefort or Camembert, for instance, he may do so under the act provided he brand his goods as “imitation” and does not attempt to foist them on the public as the original, imported article.

Henceforward, brandy will be a distillation of sound wine, properly aged in wood, and not a concoction of neutral spirits and essences. Rum will be distilled from molasses, just as it was in the days of long ago. Whiskey will be a straight distillate of grains and barley malt and not, as is too frequently the case now, a combination of high wines, flavoring extracts, and prune juice. The law does not forbid, however, the making of mixed drinks of any description—provided they are wholesome and contain no added injurious substance and are not made to imitate or stimulate any other article. They must, of course, be sold for just what they are.

Such beverages will be required to be properly labeled so that the purchaser may know the character of the drink he is getting. The act is founded on the principles of common honesty and straightforward dealing and cannot fail to be of as great advantage to the manufacturer who wants to do the right thing as it is to the consumer. The manufacturer, hereafter, will not be required to make a low-grade article in order to meet the keen competition of the adulterated article, but he will have the open market for the straight goods. The man who makes the adulterated article also will have the open market but only for his goods when they are properly labeled and when they contain no added injurious ingredient. The American people will be helped by this law, both to their health and in their pocketbooks, and when they pay for an article, they will know that it is of the character, kind, and quality demanded and not a base imitation thereof.

Substitution of one article for another has long been one of the curses of American commerce. Time after time, we have heard of the sale of chicory for coffee, and even the people of Connecticut—as everybody knows—have been accused of manufacturing nutmegs out of basswood. Under this law, substitutions will be prohibited, and basswood nutmegs will find no market.

This law is more general in its application than the laws of any other country and is a better law in most every particular, though [it is] not so drastic perhaps as those of France and Germany. It is, however, the most comprehensive food and drug act that has been enacted by any nation.

By Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, Chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture. Illustrated Sunday Magazine, Pittsburgh Gazette Times, January 20, 1907.

Patrick Earvolino, CN

Patrick Earvolino is a Certified Nutritionist and Special Projects Editor for Selene River Press, Inc.

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