15 Sep 2014
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Historic Resident Fought for Pure Food Laws

Activist Alice Lakey protested unhealthy food production practices.

Historic Resident Fought for Pure Food Laws

The reason why the Food and Drug Administration exists can be traced, in part, to Cranford. One of the township's historic residents, Alice Lakey, significantly contributed to many of the consumer protections and food quality rules that are still in place today.

Lakey, (1857-1935), served in such organizations as the National Consumers League and the General Federation of Women's Clubs, working to drum up public opinion and effect change in widely unregulated industries.

She sent messages via snail mail and via telegram to share her passion for what was called the Pure Food Movement, in a successful attempt to gain public opinion for food safety legislation.

This was a time when food producers were not required to list the ingredients of their products. Instead, they were free to call a product one thing regardless of what the food actually contained. Food contamination, tampering, mislabeling and more was all very possible and dangerous; as novels such as Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," illustrated. And as these books, which provided horrific descriptions of the meat and sausage industries, grew tremendously popular, the cries grew louder to regulate food production to ensure safety for consumers.

As the 20th century began, Lakey was among a growing group of grassroots organizers in women's and civic clubs hoping to effect change. Lakey was among the NCL leaders during this era, where those working on social justice initiatives were called Progressives or muckrakers. The Progressive Era began in the late 19th century; the NCL was formed in 1899 with the guiding principles of "working conditions we accept for our fellow citizens should be reflected by our purchases, and that consumers should demand safety and reliability from the goods and services they buy."

Lakey, alongside Katherine Wiley and Louis Brandeis of the New Jersey Consumers League, strongly supported such legislation as Meat Inspection Act of 1904 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, both considered groundbreaking laws in food safety.

The Pure Food and Drug Act, for example, forbade sales of habit-forming drugs and required that patients offer a prescription for consumption. Previously, drugs such as cocaine, heroin and cannabis were legally available over the counter. 

These laws also required inspection of meat production, and paved the way for the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.

According to the FDA's account of its history, "The Story of the Laws Behind the Labels" by FDA Historian Wallace F. Janssen, Lakey was one of the prime and most ardent supporters of these laws via the work of Harvey W. Wiley, head of the United States Division of Chemistry starting in 1883. Wiley oversaw a series of investigations and experiments on the food production practices at the time; a time when milk was still unpasteurized and ice was the main means of food preservation.

Lakey was among the essential individualizes credited with rallying the public behind Wiley's discoveries:

"Historians and Dr. Wiley himself credit the club women of the country for turning the tide of public opinion in favor of the "pure food" bill," Janssen writes. 

But the passage of these laws did not come as swiftly as one might think. Instead Lakey -- who was also a leader in the General Federation of Women's Clubs – and others struggled for a decade to gain the support for pure-food legislation.

According to the history of the GFWC, Lakey's work was tremendous. In 1906, she spearheaded a letter and telegram writing campaign, organizing supporters in a successful attempt to get the Pure Food and Drug Act to pass. According to the GFWC, Wiley would later say the bill's passing was due to the efforts of the GFWC: "Trust them [GFWC] to put the ball over the goal line every time."

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