Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Xaq Frohlich's "From Label to Table"

Xaq Frohlich is an Associate Professor of History of Technology in the Department of History at Auburn University. His research centers on risk communication, food as a liminal object that bridges the environment and human health, and socially responsible consumption. His book, From Label to Table: Regulating Food in America in the Information Age, is a history of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's food labeling policies and a study in the relationship between public institutions, private market actors, and the consumer politics surrounding food, diet, and health.

Frohlich received his Ph.D. from the Program in History, Anthropology, and STS at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2011.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to From Label to Table and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book describes how in 1969, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientist Jacqueline Verrett went public with concerns about the safety of the artificial sweetener cyclamate, based on her chick embryo studies showing deformities. This led to controversy and, initially, a rebuttal from the FDA Commissioner of her public statement. A week later, however, further evidence emerged of carcinogenic effects in other studies, leading to cyclamate's removal from the FDA's GRAS list of “generally recognized as safe” food additives, effectively banning it and impacting a wide variety of products including the iconically pink drink, Tab soda.

The Page 99 Test does not work well for my book. This page is a bit of an outlier for the book as a whole. It appears in a section, “The FDA’s bittersweet ban on cyclamate,” discussing the cyclamate controversy that highlights disagreements within the scientific community on risk management in food markets, and explains how the controversy led to the resignation of the FDA Commissioner. However, most of Chapter 3, where page 99 appears, is focused on the FDA’s involvement in broader debates about hunger in America and the public soul searching that surrounded the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health. Indeed, such prominent ingredient bans by the FDA are fairly uncommon. Most of my book, From Label to Table, describes FDA’s efforts to steer food markets backstage through rules about labeling that allow producers to use food additives so long as they’re properly labeled, so that consumers can decide for themselves about health risks.

On the other hand, page 99’s discussion of this pivotal moment for the FDA, which resulted in an unpopular ingredient ban, does highlight some of the high stakes of FDA decisions. It also helps to set the stage for the subsequent chapters where the FDA faces serious public and political backlash about its food policies. The FDA’s move towards informative labeling in the 1970s, most significantly the introduction of ingredients and nutrition labeling, was partly a response to public outcry and industry complaints about how it had handled the cyclamate affair.

So while page 99 gives readers a taste of some important recurring themes of my book — disputes among scientific experts about how to weigh risks with popular food products, doubts among regulators about how best to handle public relations — I hope they’ll read on. Some of the best material (such as where that familiar “Nutrition Facts” panel came from) is yet to come.
Visit Xaq Frohlich's website.

--Marshal Zeringue