Sunday, March 18, 2018

Anna Zeide's "Canned"

Anna Zeide is Assistant Professor of Professional Practice at Oklahoma State University, where her research, teaching, and community activism focus on food and food systems.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry, and reported the following:
One of the realities that characterizes the modern American food industry--and indeed the business world in general--is that it tends to reject government regulation. Which is why it's so interesting to find that the early canning industry actually welcomed government regulation with open arms. Page 99 of my new book, Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry, finds California canners in 1921 pleading: "We urgently request [the state] to assist us in policing the industry." So, what's going on here? Why did the canners want to be "policed" by the state, and what can this tell us about the development of our modern food system?

In 1919 and 1920, there were nationwide outbreaks of botulism, a deadly form of food poisoning, which had resulted from canned olives packed in California. The canning industry, and especially California canners, quickly sprang to action. They wanted to identify the root of the problem that had caused this outbreak, and to change their processes in whatever ways they could to make sure it wouldn't happen again. The canners funded the California Botulism Commission, consisting of scientific experts from the U.S. Public Health Service, the University of California, Stanford University, and the California State Department of Health. The findings of this commission produced valuable research about the times and temperatures required to safely process different kinds of canned foods. Based on these findings, California created a Division of Cannery Inspection in 1923. As I write on page 99, "A crucial point here is that these inspection programs were funded entirely by canners--testifying to the rising importance canners placed on government regulation around 1920." Canners in other states followed suit in bringing in government inspectors to maintain oversight over their own industry.

In the book as a whole, I argue that the American canning industry, before the 1930s, was uniquely vulnerable, selling a product that was unfamiliar and often undesirable to American consumers. In this space of vulnerability, the canners sought to partner with any external experts who carried public trust, to convey a stamp of approval upon their still new products. This is why the canners of the 1920s invited government regulation. They needed this external affirmation to rebuild trust in canned food in the eyes of the consumers after the botulism outbreak. As canners grew more confident in the years to come--in part as a result of the scientific work of the botulism commission--they would become less willing to open themselves up to government regulations, and would begin to reject this receptivity to external scientific advice, bringing us to the current state of tension between the federal government and the food industry.

How do we make the industry responsive once more? Show them their vulnerability.
Visit Anna Zeide's website.

--Marshal Zeringue