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Grade 6-8, 9-12

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Updated: July 22 2015,
Author: Patricia Bonner


Prior to the Industrial Revolution, people grew, preserved, and prepared most of the food they ate. Food products that were purchased were relatively simple – like flour and bread. Consumers personally knew most food producers and were able to evaluate the products through personal experience.

Today, food products are more complicated. Nearly all the foods you eat are produced by others. Additives reduce food spoilage and make food more appealing in appearance and taste. Faster modes of transportation and other technical advances make it possible to purchase food from around the world. With these changes, it is more difficult for individuals to determine the quality of products and whether they are safe. The U.S. government has established rules to keep harmful foods out of the marketplace and provide information that will help you evaluate products before you buy.

Task List

Your task in this lesson will be to read about some of the government rules that protect our nation’s food supply, identify reasons buyers and sellers seek government regulation and information in a market economy, and to use information on food labels to make a consumer choice.


Activity 1: Food Safety and Quality

In the early years of the United States, federal regulation of food was extremely rare and applied only to food imports. States had principal control over domestically produced and distributed foods. This control was inconsistent at best. The Massachusetts Act led the way in state-sponsored food and drug laws.

By the late 1800s, the public was becoming increasingly alarmed by reports of “fake” foods and food safety scares. Read these two articles from the FDA Consumer to learn more about the events that created public mistrust of foods and how government ultimately was asked to intervene.

Using what you have read, answer the questions on the "The Struggle for a Federal Pure Food Law" worksheet concerning the struggle for passage of the first food safety laws.

From the magazine articles, you know that Congress took action to restore public confidence in food in 1906. The Pure Food and Drugs Act banned interstate and foreign commerce in adulterated and misbranded food. Offending products could be seized and violators could be fined and jailed. Congress also passed The Meat Inspection Act requiring inspection of all red meats for interstate distribution. This second law was a direct response to Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle, which exposed unsanitary conditions in the Chicago meat packing industry.

Just as they to do today, some producers took advantage of loopholes in the 1906 laws. Consider a new product made with food dye, artificial pectin and grass seed that looked and tasted like fruit jelly. The product had so little fruit that it could not have been sold legally, under the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act as jelly but it could be sold as Bred Spred.

Likewise, something called Peanut Spread was sold even though it contained very few peanuts. During the Depression, these products were heavily advertised and sold well. Consumers had no way of knowing the products were of lower quality than real jelly, jams and peanut butter. Congress stepped up again and passed The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 which:

  • Gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to establish standards of identity for common foods such as jams, jelly, peanut butter, mayonnaise, ketchup, ice cream and fruit juices.
  • Prohibited the addition of poisonous substances to foods and allowed
  • the FDA to set maximum safe levels for unavoidable poisonous substances.
  • Required every container of processed, packaged food to state the name of the food and its net weight.
  • Added federal court injunctions to the previous legal remedies of voluntary recall, product seizures, and criminal prosecutions.

As new issues arose, other federal regulations concerning food safety and quality followed.

1954: Miller Pesticide Amendment provided for the establishment of specific maximum amounts of pesticide residues that are allowed to remain on agricultural products.

1958: Food Additives (Delaney) Amendment prohibited food products, which contain additives found to cause cancer in either people or animals. The amendment also required manufacturers to prove the safety of new food additives before using them in food products.

The same year, the FDA published its first list of Substances Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) – additives in common use prior to 1958 which had not been found to cause cancer. Substances on the GRAS list range from salt and sugar to monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Responsibility for regulating the food supply and monitoring food safety today rests primarily in the hands of two federal agencies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), specifically the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), is responsible for enforcing meat and poultry regulations. The FSIS inspects meat and poultry slaughtering and processing facilities.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for all other food products. The FDA inspects products and food processing facilities. It also has responsibility for the approval of new foods, food additives, and pesticides. FDA inspectors are authorized to cover every link in the food chain including farms, warehouses, ports of entry, processing plants, transportation vehicles, restaurants, and supermarkets.

Responsibility for monitoring pesticides is shared between the Environmental Projection Agency (EPA) and the FDA. Other responsibilities are shared with or given to individual states. For example, milk inspection is conducted by states under federal guidelines with the federal government monitoring state performance. The EPA pesticide program contracts with states for enforcement. People eating in restaurants feel confident that the food they are being served has been prepared under sanitary conditions because of food inspectors employed by state and local governments.

To better organize this information, fill out this data retrieval chart involving major advances in food safety and quality.

Activity 2: Information for Making Choices

The efficient operation of a market system depends on informed consumer decisions. To help consumers make informed choices about food, there are additional government rules and programs. There are federal rules that govern the information businesses must provide about the food products they sell. The federal government also provides general nutrition information as a public service. These are some of the government actions that influence the food and nutrition information available today.

1913: Gould Amendment requires that food package contents be "plainly and conspicuously marked on the outside of the package in terms of weight, measure, or numerical count."

1938: Wheeler-LEA Act charges the Federal Trade Commission with overseeing the advertising of consumer goods and services. “Deceptive and unfair practices” that harm consumers and business competitors are banned.

1946: USDA Identifies Seven Basic Food Groups on which its dietary guidelines were based; in the 1950s this was reduced to the “Basic Four.”

1966: Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires all food products to be honestly labeled and to include information on the name of the product, the name and address of the manufacturer, and the net weight of the contents. Ingredients must be listed in the order of the largest ingredient to the smallest, either by weight or volume. For example, if you buy chicken noodle soup, the label might say: "Contains chicken and noodles." Another can's label might say, "Contains noodles and chicken." The first can has more chicken than noodles. The second can has more noodles than chicken.

1990: Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) required nutritional labeling on nearly all processed foods based on recommended dietary guidelines for foods created by the USDA . In addition, NLEA required:

  • Standard serving sizes on labels, in both common household and metric measures.
  • Standardized label information on the amount per serving of saturated fat, cholesterol, and dietary fiber, and other nutrients.
  • Identification by name of many flavorings and color additives to help people with allergies avoid them.
  • Health claims on food labels consistent with federal definitions, such as “fat-free,” “low-sugar," “reduced-calorie,” “high fiber,” "light,” “extra lean,” “fresh," and "healthy."
  • The total percentage of juice contained in juice.

1994: Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act establishes specific labeling requirements for dietary supplements.

2002: National Standards for Organic Certification say that foods and ingredients claimed to be "organic" cannot be produced using most fertilizers and pesticides, genetic engineering, growth hormones, irradiation, or antibiotics.

Fill in this data retrieval chart to help you organize what you have learned about food labeling acts in the United States. Then, use the package information from two similar food products to answer the questions on the"Reading the Label" worksheet.


Thanks to government regulation and information, you don’t have to guess who or what will be in your dinner– or any other food you are eating, for that matter.

As food makes the trip from farm or feedlot to your home, there are many points where contamination and spoilage can occur. You can generally take for granted that the food you purchase is safe and will not cause you harm. Government efforts to protect consumers include:

  • Setting standards for food safety and quality
  • Inspecting products and production facilities to be sure they meet these standards

You also have access to information that helps you make a smart choice. The federal government:

  • Provides consumer guidelines on what constitutes a healthy diet
  • Requires manufacturers to provide standardized and truthful information on food content including ingredients, nutritional value and measure (i.e., weight, volume and count)

As long as the costs do not exceed the benefits, businesses also value this economic intervention by government. Consumer confidence in food quality and safety is good for sales and profit. Informed consumers decisions also reward reputable businesses who might be put out of business by producers of fake and adulterated food which could be sold more cheaply.

Assessment Activity

Assessment for this activity will be based on the worksheets for the above activities. After each activity complete the assigned worksheet and turn it in to your teacher.

Extension Activity

  1. For more information on read about the Milestones in FDA History.
  2. Look at The Food Guide Pyramid . To help educate the public on healthful diets, the USDA developed an illustration of what and how much people should eat from each of food groups. For an introduction to the Pyramid created just for young persons, visit Teens Health: The Food Guide Pyramid from the Nemours Foundation
  3. For additional information on food issues, visit these Web sites: