We often see food labeling as something reasonably modern, but it actually started in the United Kingdom in the 13th century, under the Assize of Bread law. This stopped bakers from adding ground beans and peas into bread dough. In this country, food regulations started as soon as the country was colonized.
The Department of Agriculture was launched in 1862 by President Lincoln. He also launched the Bureau of Chemistry. This later became the Food and Drug Administration.
Mis-branding was made illegal under the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. The Supreme Court decreed that any label that could be perceived as deceptive or misleading is illegal in 1924. The new FDC Act was passed in 1938, which set certain standards of quality, identity, poisons, factory inspections and more. The food standards for processed tomatoes was passed in 1939. The Black Book was published by the FDA in 1949. The Oleomargarine Act of 1950 stopped manufacturers from passing oleomargarine as butter. The Food Additives Amendment was enacted in 1958, meaning all additives had to be declared and a list of safe food substances (the GRAS) is to be published.
The Consumer Bill of Rights was passed by President Kennedy in 1962. By 1965, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act was passed. Saccharin, which was included on the GRAS, was removed in 1971. The year 1973 saw the formation of the CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) in which 54 farmers certified each other under published, transparent, organic standards. In 1977, the FDA was stopped from banning saccharin altogether. Instead, a label warning about its carcinogenic properties in animal tests had to be added.
The Infant Formula Act was passed in 1980 to guarantee the safety and nutritional content of formula milk. The same year, the first dietary guidelines for Americans were passed, with an agreement to update them every five years. It started with just 7 guidelines. By 2005, the booklet was 71 pages long. The Black Book was replaced by the Red Book in 1982.
The Nutritional Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) passed in 1990. This further determined what should be on labels. Today's nutrition labels remain virtually unchanged. Nutrition Facts were added in 1991. In 1995, the cancer warning about saccharin could be removed from labels once again.
The American Heart Association started the Heart Check Symbol initiative in 1995. This label was added to foods that are low in cholesterol and fat. Transfair was established in 1998, which was designed to improve the labeling of imported food.
Under the Farm Bill of 2002, meat products must be labeled with a country-of-origin label (COOL). However, it wasn't actually implemented (improperly) until 2008. The year 2002 saw the enactment of the National Organic Program (NOP). In 2003, the FDA stated that all labels should show trans fat content. This didn't actually start until 2006.
In 2003, the FDA agreed that less than conclusive claims can be added to labels in terms of health benefits. The Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act was passed in 2004 for products that contain ingredients that people are commonly allergic to (like dairy, peanuts, wheat and shellfish).
From 2004, different manufacturers started to develop their own labels to describe some of their products as being 'more nutritious' than other products. This was joined in 2004 by PepsiCo's Smartspot, in 2005 by Kraft's Sensible Solutions and President's Choice's Blue Menu, and in 2006 by Hannaford Brothers Supermarket Chain's Guiding Stars.
Nutritional Value (NuVal) was announced in 2008, scoring nutritional value on products from 1 to 100. The score was based on a 'top secret' algorithm. The Kellogg Company launched Nutrition at a Glance in 2007, based on guidelines used in Europe. GDA labeling was added to all foods and snacks manufactured by Mars International in 2008. Smart Choices was launched that same year.
Th year 2009 saw the launch of Healthy Ideas, with only 10% of items at Stop & Shop and Giant Foods qualifying for the benchmark. Nutritional Spotlight was introduced by Sara Lee in 2009. SuperValue introduced nutritionIQ that same year, as was the TAG program initiated by United Supermarkets.
Smart Choices was suspended by itself in 2009 following an FDA 'Dear Manufacturer' letter and after the public showing Froot Loops as being all that is wrong with today's labeling system. In 2010, four items were recommended to be listed on labels by the Institute of Medicine (sodium, transfat, saturated fat and calories). Cuts of meat had to show nutrition since 2012, following a rule instated in 2010.
The list, as you can see, is endless. Almost every year, new manufacturers create new labels. The FDA tries to make sense of it but also frequently changes the goal post. As a result, people often really struggle to know what they actually eat, and what is an isn't good for them.