Matthew Morse Booker: Who Should Be Responsible for Food Safety?

Today we welcome a guest post from Matthew Morse Booker, co-editor (with Charles C. Ludington) of Food Fights: How History Matters to Contemporary Food Debates, available now from UNC Press.

What we eat, where it is from, and how it is produced are vital questions in today’s America. We think seriously about food because it is freighted with the hopes, fears, and anxieties of modern life. Yet critiques of food and food systems all too often sprawl into jeremiads against modernity itself, while supporters of the status quo refuse to acknowledge the problems with today’s methods of food production and distribution. Food Fights sheds new light on these crucial debates, using a historical lens. Its essays take strong positions, even arguing with one another, as they explore the many themes and tensions that define how we understand our food—from the promises and failures of agricultural technology to the politics of taste.

In this post, Booker discusses the history of food safety regulations in the U.S.

Food Fights is now available in print and ebook editions.


Who Should Be Responsible for Food Safety?

I love oysters. So much so that I grow my own with my co-editor Chad Ludington. And I love to eat oysters raw. I do so even though I understand oyster biology. Oysters are bottom feeders. They filter the water around them. Everything that was in that water, is in the oyster. Everything, including any human or animal waste!

Yet surprisingly few people get sick from eating oysters. They are among the safest foods you can buy in the United States. That is because oysters are one of the most heavily regulated foods you can buy. State and federal agencies constantly test oysters. They are watched over from the beginning of their lives to the moment they reach your plate. That regulation is a gift from the past century, when Congress and states created the first food safety regulations.

My chapter in Food Fights traces how Americans first regulated food. And it turns out that oysters are at the heart of that story. And so are college students.

Both came together in an 1894 Wesleyan University fraternity pledge dinner in Connecticut. After the dinner, a typhoid fever epidemic made twenty-five young men terribly sick and killed four. Wesleyan biology professor H.W. Conn linked the typhoid to raw oysters that the fraternity brothers ate that night, and the raw oysters to raw sewage from the oyster dealer’s own house. In fact, the oysterman’s wife died of typhoid at the same time as the fraternity brothers. This oyster-related disease epidemic indiscriminately struck down both the rich and the working poor.

Professor H. W. Conn’s map linking typhoid fever from sewers through oysters to eaters.


This scandal worsened the reputation of oysters, already suspected in many other disease outbreaks. It helped push scientists like H. W. Conn to lobby for the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which for the first time empowered federal agents in the US Department of Agriculture to inspect and test food. You’ll have to read the book for the details of that remarkable story.

The Board of Food and Drug Inspection eventually banned storing oysters in polluted water, and many states followed by banning urban aquaculture and wild oyster harvest from polluted waters. Once a common food, oysters declined rapidly in the American diet, partly due to overfishing but also partly because of fear. Regulators clamped down, and their attention has never wavered from the oyster. Thanks to 19th century tragedies you are safe from eating typhoid-polluted oysters!

But there is a sad twist to the story. Poor health and polluted water caused the typhoid epidemic. Oysters were just the vector that carried illness from the polluted commons to individuals. Congress and the states banned growing oysters in polluted water, but they did not regulate water pollution until many decades later. Even today, more than a century later, Americans still get sick from polluted water. Congress placed the burden of food safety on the people who grow and sell oysters, but not on the people who pollute the environment where oysters are grown.

Our food safety system is based on these concerns from a century ago. Government inspectors continue to protect us from malign producers. They have been remarkably successful. Today, the biggest killers are no longer typhoid and tuberculosis or the other consequences of contaminated food, air and water. Today’s killers include heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Those chronic illnesses are not caused by impure food, but rather by too much food, or the wrong kinds of food, or other hard to regulate factors. And that raises serious questions for us, as serious as the ones that faced our ancestors. Who should be responsible for food safety when it means protecting not only food but also the environment where food is grown? How can we adapt our regulatory system to keep us safe from the dangers of 21st century food?

When it comes to food safety, our history is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because thanks to the generations gone by, none of us are going to die of typhoid. And it is a curse, because our regulatory system is built to tackle the problems of the past.


Matthew Morse Booker is associate professor of history at North Carolina State University. Follow him on Twitter.