Cornell Law Review Volume 93 Issue 5

Food, Drugs, and Droods: A Historical Consideration of Definitions and Categories in American Food and Drug Law

This Article explores the evolution and interaction of the legal and cultural categories “food” and “drug” from the late nineteenth century to the present. The federal statutory definitions of “food” and “drug” have always been ambiguous and plastic, providing the FDA with significant regulatory flexibility. Nevertheless, the agency is not necessarily free to interpret the definitions however it chooses. “Food” and “drug” are not only product classes defined by food and drug law, but also fundamental cultural concepts. This Article demonstrates that the FDA, as well as Congress and the courts, have operated within a constraining cultural matrix that has limited their freedom to impose their preferred understandings of these categories on American society.

Nonetheless, history also provides ample evidence that lawmakers possess substantial power to mold the legal categories of “food” and “drug” so as to advance desired policies. One explanation for this regulatory flexibility in the face of deep-seated cultural conceptions is the indeterminate nature of the
extralegal notions of “food” and “drug.” The terms, as commonly understood, embrace nebulous, overlapping, and constantly evolving realms. Moreover, the relationship between culture and law is not a one-way street with respect to these categories. Although the regulatory apparatus has always had to take into account the extralegal understandings of “food” and “drug,” the law in turn has exerted significant influence over their meaning in broader culture.


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