England has had laws against adulteration of beer, bread, and other commodities since the 13th century, culminating in the Adulteration of Food or Drink Act of 1872 with its stiff penalties. The law was modernized with the 1955 Food and Drug Act. Adulteration not only functions to defraud consumers but it can also pose a health threat. In the case of illegal drugs sold on the street, adulteration is generally in the form of inert or harmless compounds, but deadly poisons, such as sodium cyanide, have sometimes been sold as heroin.
Adulteration is not the only source of poor-quality or dangerous foods and drugs: The ingredients of junk foods need not be adulterated to ensure a virtual absence of nutritional value; potentially hazardous medicines will have more adverse effects if unadulterated. The consumer movement of recent times has focused not only on adulteration, but also on the nature of various unadulterated ingredients. For hundreds of years, governments have had an interest in regulating food processing to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of the foods consumed by their citizens.
The earliest known food law was written in Japan in AD 702. In Britain, the first Pure Food Laws were enacted during the 1860s to combat adulteration, the secret use of additives to stretch wholesome foods with cheaper, no nutritious (and sometimes dangerous) ingredients. This practice became common during the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century), when cities began to grow and urban populations no longer got their food directly from the farm, creating an opportunity for deception by middlemen.
Today, several United States government agencies carry out inspections and enforce a comprehensive system of regulations governing food processing, packaging, and distribution. The FDA is responsible for monitoring and inspecting most all other food products. The FDA enforces the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which prohibits the shipping of adulterated or mislabeled products in interstate commerce.
FDA inspectors visit food processing plants and warehouses to monitor all phases of processing, packaging, and distribution. Samples of food products are analyzed by FDA chemists to ensure the foods are wholesome and unadulterated and do not contain harmful substances, such as levels of pesticides above the limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 1958, amendments to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act gave the FDA authority to regulate the use of additives in foods.
The Delaney Clause, which was part of those amendments, prohibits approval of additives that cause cancer in human or animal tests. Some people have criticized this clause for being too inflexible, because some studies show very small increases in cancer risk and some studies that show a risk of cancer in animals may not be relevant to humans. Since 1969, the FDA has set standards for inspection of retail food stores, restaurants, and cafeterias, although local health departments are responsible for carrying out those inspections.