What Is Food and Drug Law?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 24 January 2020
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Food and drug law refers to regulatory measures meant to protect the quality and quantity of essential food, beverage, medical, and cosmetic products. The history of food and drug law stretches back to the 13th century, though laws remained startlingly lax in many areas until the mid-20th century. Food and drug law is considered by many to be essential to ensuring a supply of consumer-safe products; laws may cover any area from the labeling of products to the protection of participants in clinical drug trials.

One of the first recorded food and drug laws is known as the Assize of Bread, created in the early 13th century in England. Bread was a major dietary staple for the majority of the population at that time, yet until the Assize of Bread no laws existed to protect the quality of the product. The Assize of Bread prohibited the use of additives, such as ground beans, in the production of bread. In addition, the law regulated the size and weight of bread; bakers, fearing reprisal, took to adding an additional loaf to an order of bread to ensure that weight regulations were met. The result of this practice is the baker's dozen, or practice of throwing in an additional loaf of bread when a dozen are ordered.


Food and drug law modernization began in earnest in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when mass production of food and medical products first became possible. In 1862, President Lincoln of the United States opened a new department within the Bureau of Agriculture known as the Bureau of Chemistry, which dedicated itself to studying the presence of adulterants in food, beverages, and drugs. In 1906, the United States passed the Pure Food and Drug law, which among other things, regulated the labeling practice for available drugs containing cocaine, opiates, and cannabis. The Meat Inspection Act, inspired in part by author Upton Sinclair's horrific account of meat packing plants, The Jungle, passed in the same year.

In the 21st century, food and drug law may cover an extremely wide area of regulation, importation, and manufacturing procedures. Expansions to the initial basic laws include the testing, manufacture, and regulation of prescription medicines, and the outlawing of certain drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines. Cosmetic products, such as makeup, shampoo, and soap, are often regulated by food and drug laws as well. Food and drug management is handled by large governmental departments in many areas, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in America, the Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.


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