Of course, the exhibit makes clear that Washington’s policies have often led to poor eating habits. During World War II the government encouraged children to eat doughnuts (donuts without the “dough” hadn’t been invented yet, apparently) fortified with Vitamin B1. No doubt they’d have tasted even better had they been topped with oleo, but you can’t have everything, I guess.
The display glosses over one of the most destructive federal interventions, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. At the height of the depression, Washington paid farmers to not grow crops and to slaughter livestock. It’s axiomatic, of course, that you cannot feed people by destroying crops. The government’s moves were aimed at increasing the price of food, although that seems an odd goal at a time when unemployed Americans were starving in the streets. Maybe those who are today advocating for higher natural gas prices could explain.
As the exhibit makes clear, the turning point for federal intervention in our food supply came after Upton Sinclair published his gut wrenching book “The Jungle.” Sinclair showed how the sausage was being made, and Americans were appalled. The Archives’ exhibit contains a long letter from Sinclair to President Theodore Roosevelt calling for federal intervention.
After the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the exhibit notes, “the government found itself in the business of protecting Americans from unsafe steak, misbranded mushrooms, and tainted tomatoes.” Some intervention may have been necessary 100 years ago, but these days the free market would do a much better job of protecting us against tainted meat.
Remember the Topps Meat Company of New Jersey? Probably not.
In the fall of 2007 it shipped frozen hamburgers tainted with E. coli. It recalled the meat, but ended up shutting down almost immediately. “In one week we have gone from the largest U.S. manufacturer of frozen hamburgers to a company that cannot overcome the economic reality of a recall this large,” COO Anthony D’Urso announced. No government bureaucracy could react that quickly or decisively. No doubt other meat companies took note.
The lesson of “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” is that federal intervention warps our food supply in many ways. We’d all be better off if Washington got out of the kitchen and let the free market provide what we want to eat.