Food poisoning will make America great again!
Or, at least, that’s what Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump appears to be banking on with a new proposal released on Thursday. Trump’s campaign distributed a fact sheet outlining “specific regulations to be eliminated.” Among other things, this fact sheet took aim at “the FDA Food Police.”
These “food police,” according to the Trump campaign, “dictate how the federal government expects farmers to produce fruits and vegetables and even dictates the nutritional content of dog food.” They “govern the soil farmers use, farm and food production hygiene, food packaging, food temperatures and even what animals may roam which fields and when.” The FDA “also greatly increased inspections of food ‘facilities,’ and levies new taxes to pay for this inspection overkill.”
So vote Trump, and free yourself from the tyranny of hygiene, safe packaging, and refrigeration!
Trump’s proposal may be surprising, but it is not especially new. Libertarian theorists have long claimed that the free market can take care of food safety. People want to be healthy. Food producers want to have customers. So food producers that make people unhealthy will develop a bad reputation and eventually lose their customers. And food producers that have good reputations will preserve it by choosing to sell safe food.
So, that’s the theory. But, as it turns out, this theory has already been tested in the real world. And it didn’t perform so well. Americans lived in the libertarian paradise Trump appears to be selling for many years, and what it got them was moldy ketchup.
Some producers would try to fight such contamination by doctoring their ketchup with chemicals such as “boric acid, formalin, salicylic acid, and benzonic acid.” Others would simply sell a product that was “filthy, decomposed and putrid.”
Processed foods became a major stable of the American diet in the late nineteenth century, as more and more Americans moved to urban areas. Families who once grew fresh food no longer had access to land that would enable them to do so, and modern refrigeration did not yet exist to allow fresh foods to be shipped from farms to cities. So processed foods became an essential part of the city-dweller’s diet largely because they had no other choice.
The companies that produced these foods, however, were not subject to the web of food regulation that exists today — often, these companies were hardly regulated at all. As a result, food producers routinely padded their profits with deception:
Jars labeled strawberry jam often contained no strawberries, only glucose, red food coloring, grass seed, and gelatin. Jars of honey were sometimes diluted with glucose. Rotten eggs were deodorized, rancid butter was revived. “Soothing syrups” for babies were often laced with morphine. “Olive oil” was sometimes made with cottonseed.
One of the worst offenders was ketchup manufacturers. As Andrew Smith lays out in his surprisingly detailed history The Tomato in America, the tomato growing season lasted only from mid-August to mid-October, too short of a time period for ketchup manufacturers to make a year’s supply of their product. So they would try to increase their supply of tomatoes by concentrating tomato pulp and storing it for use in the off-season. Due to unsanitary storage practices, however, the pulp often became a breeding ground for mold, yeast, spores, and bacteria.
Some producers would try to fight such contamination by doctoring their ketchup with chemicals such as “boric acid, formalin, salicylic acid, and benzonic acid.” Others would simply sell a product that was “filthy, decomposed and putrid,” according to Smith.
This is what the free market offered consumers in the absence of regulation.
If you recently consumed ketchup, chances are you ate Heinz ketchup, which controls a 60 percent market share. There’s a good reason for Heinz’s dominance that stretches back more than a century. The H. J. Heinz Company was one of the few ketchup manufacturers that not only sold sanitary ketchup, but that also actively marketed itself as a source of untainted foods (Heinz’s marketing material still brags that they are the “Pure Foods Company”). That meant that, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, Heinz — which actively lobbied to pass the act — was well-positioned to take advantage of the new regulatory regime and dominate a market now freed from competition by tainted ketchup producers.
America has already tested the idea that we can have safe foods without adequate regulation, in other words. As it turns out, the invisible hand of the market delivered moldy, rancid ketchup that used vinegar and spice to cover up the flavor of decay. It took regulation, the very kind of regulation that Trump now seems to be out to get, to enable Americans to trust their food.