Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry

Canned may well be the most important book written about processed food in recent years. Anna Zeide traces the history of the canned food industry, primarily in America in the 20th Century. She uses specific canned products in each of the six chapters to illustrate the development of the industry and how these events shaped the industrialized food system and the modern processed-food industry:

  • condensed milk introduces the canning process,
  • peas bring in industry/ farmer interaction,
  • olives are associated with botulism and other bacteria,
  • tomatoes connect hidden quality and the food label,
  • tuna presents the dangers of chemical contamination, and
  • soup highlights BPA and an industry stuck in the past.

This book should be required reading for any food-science student taking a food-processing course. All food scientists could benefit from sitting down with it. Most of the solutions are not likely to resonate with the food-science community, but Canned provides clues to why the food industry and processed food are so disrespected at this time. Each chapter paints a picture of how food scientists have become merely pawns of a industry out to exploit its customers. It would appear that when there is a disagreement between the food movement and industry, too frequently it is industry that hides behind corrupt scientists on the take. Such a narrative will not come as a surprise, but rarely are the arguments so clearly spelled out as they are in this book. I have read over one-hundred critiques of the food industry, and no one has conceptualized key issues in the struggle between processors and the food movement as Zeide. As a result, I will devote the entire month of July to this book and the issues it raises.

As I have done in previous reviews, I will use direct quotes from the book as starting points for discussion.

“When we open up the can, we see that it becomes a lens through which we can understand social organization, science and technology, corporations, politics, marketing, labor, and the environment—and the way that all of these come together through the food industry.” The author challenges herself with this expansive mission, and she largely delivers. She carefully intertwines this myriad of wide-ranging aspects into a tight story. The book is not always exciting, but it is very well crafted. The main theme is primarily about how much the food industry can be trusted. Her main premise is that the food industry has worked hard to gain and retain consumer trust, but it has largely failed.

Although Canned purports to be a history of the canned food industry, Zeide provides a running commentary that primarily sides with the food movement and against the industry. I agree with the issues she raises but it is her underlying set of assumptions and explanations with which I disagree. She concludes that the food industry has lost the trust of the American public. I concur with that assessment, but so has almost every American institution since the ferment of the 1960s and 70s. The military is the only one that has gained in trustworthiness since those tumultuous times. Having said that, if processed food had not suffered such a severe loss in trust, this blog and my book would not exist today.

“As more consumers became exposed to canned goods, however, concerns began to emerge about adulteration, fueled by a press prone to sensationalized reporting.” Consumers were wise to be wary of canned foods in the early years of the 20th century. Dr. Harvey Wiley, the father of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, was particularly concerned about adulteration and chemical contamination of food products. He was pleased with the canning industry and its emphasis on bacteriology to prevent botulism. It is interesting that the author focuses on the sensationalized reporting at that time, while seeing no parallels in today’s media. Many of us who have devoted our lives to the safety and abundance of our food supply believe that processed food in general and canned food specifically is much safer today than it was a century ago. Advances in scientific knowledge and technological progress has made today’s abundant and safe food supply possible.

“many newspaper articles suggested that botulism nearly always had an obvious, strong smell that housewives could use to guard themselves from danger, if they only used their noses. Behind the scenes, however, the situation was not so clear.” One of the key themes in Canned is the issue of food safety and how the industry responded to it. In came the bacteriologists who essentially became the arbiters of food safety after the first scare and who, as food microbiologists, still prevail today. Zeide addresses the issue of spoiled and unsafe foods but does not really resolve it. Food scientists separate spoiled (no longer edible) and unsafe (dangerous) foods, but many consumers do not distinguish between the two. Most unsafe foods do not evidence any off-odor and provide the consumer no advance warning. According to a source, Clostridium botulinum, the organism responsible for botulism, can produce off-odors. Such potential odors should not absolve any food company from full responsibility for an unsafe product.

The last chapter in the book involves issue of BPA (bisphenol A) in cans of tomatoes and other high-acid foods. Whether BPA in canned tomato soup is safe or not depends on one’s interpretation. Toxicologists use the concept of “the dose makes the poison” and claim the dose of BPA we ingest in food products is not sufficient to cause a danger. Environmental biologists beg to disagree. The counter is that endocrine disruptors like BPA can “cause serious damage at very low levels by signaling a change in the endocrine system.” As I researched this issue for my book I read Chemical Food Safety by J.E. Riviere and Is It Safe by Sara Vogel. Both authors very eloquently argue their case for or against allowing BPA in foods at the current levels.


The FDA has removed BPA from plastics directly related to feeding infants, but the agency has largely sided with the toxicologists. The author of Canned firmly supports the environmental biologists and suggests collusion between industry and government. She claims that the FDA hides behind a requirement that data obtained from studies not using formalized Good Laboratory Practices are inadmissible for a change in regulation. The argument goes well beyond my level of expertise. Both sides make a plausible case. In battles like this, I trust in the judgement of the FDA. Zeide apparently does not. Is it possible that a disagreement could be based on principle on both sides? Or do we need to take a side and accuse the other side of corruption and bad faith?

“A desire to improve raw crops gave way to a system of industrial agriculture reliant on aggressive breeding, pesticides and commercial fertilizers.” The author then describes in detail how a conspiracy of canners, farmers and colleges of agriculture led to the current industrialized food system. The canners linked up farmers with ag researchers, and the extension service was able to pass on the information. Unfortunately, only the larger, more economically advantaged operations survived driving the smaller farmers from their fields. Advances in breeding and agricultural chemicals led to greater consolidation of farms and eventually a dreaded industrialized food system. Note that the genesis of this major transformation on how food was grown and distributed as described in Canned was in the post-World War I era of the 1920s and 30s.

An alternate explanation for this transformation is that states wished to help spur the economy and found the agricultural colleges willing partners. In this scenario, the ability to adopt technology separated the less productive growers from the more productive ones through a form of natural selection. Then the Great Depression came along that wiped out many farms including both proficient and not-so-proficient ones. It is interesting to speculate on what our country would look like if states had not invested in research and extension, technology had not prevailed, and small farmers fed us rather than the megafarms of today. Would America’s farm economy be more like the peasant-led agriculture of modern China? Is that the society we would prefer today?

Bottom line

Canned is an excellent description of the history of canned food and how it led to the modern food-processing industry. I am pleased that the author considers canned products to be processed foods as many food writers do not. Zeide has clearly stated the differences in perception of processed food by the food movement and the food industry. Where the book becomes provocative is that the author invariably takes the side of the food movement without questioning their motives or evidence. What she leaves out is that there may be a middle path, food science, that rejects many of the conclusions of the food movement but also is skeptical of many of the claims of the food industry, particularly in its marketing efforts. She rightfully declares that the industry and the processed products they manufacture have lost the trust of the American public. Is it because all processed food is unhealthy or because the food movement has captured the imagination of consumer “fueled by a press [or media] prone to sensationalized reporting”? During the next three weeks, I will provide a food scientist’s perspective on these and related issues.

Next week: Are grading standards relevant to canned vegetable quality?


10 thoughts on “Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s