Abstract: Food Labeling Regulation and Its Reform: The Market Politics of the 1973 FDA New Food Label Rules

Xaq Frohlich


This paper examines the U.S. FDA’s introduction of informative labeling in 1973, especially the “Nutrition Information” panel, and how it changed both interest-group politics on food and diet issues and the marketing of old and new, nonstandard foods. It situates the new labeling rules in the context of 1970s atmosphere of “re-regulation” – the dismantling of New Deal command-and-control regulation for regulation based on market mechanisms, including “informational regulation.” I focus on the FDA’s presentation of nutrition as a politically neutral platform for reform and labeling as a form of consumer empowerment. The paper ends by describing a series of political backlashes against the FDA: the Proxmire Amendments of 1976 restricting regulation of dietary supplements and the “saccharine rebellion” culminating in the Saccharin Study and Labeling Act of 1977. Despite these attacks, the first ever to limit, instead of expand the FDA’s powers, the new informative labeling system remained intact. This was because nutrition labeling reflected the advent of an ideology of “healthism” centered on individual liberty to choose one’s own healthy lifestyles and risks.

Using this historical episode I will discuss the ways in which regulatory environments constitute markets, focusing in particular on “informational regulation” mechanisms. The turn to product labeling in part continued an old progressive concern with liberal protections on “market transparency.” But it also portended the beginning of a new understanding of who was the “ordinary” consumer regulation was intended to protect. The new consumer was one that could not only handle more information, but demanded it. Throughout the paper I show how the turn to labeling represented a significant reframing of individual and governmental responsibility for health and a realignment of public-private divisions of labor for marketing, educating, and maintaining healthfulness.