For 80 years we’ve tested for dangerous ingredients, taken manufacturers and the government to task, exposed the shortcomings of fast foods, and objected to unclear labeling. In the process, we’ve changed minds and changed laws. Many of today’s battles are the same ones we’ve been championing for decades. 


Read a "A Safer Food Future, Now" by Eric Schlosser, the author of “Fast Food Nation” and a co-producer of the documentary “Food, Inc.”
 

1930s

1930's image of Milk bottles lined up.
Photo: Getty Images

May 1936: Milk Mayhem
Consumer Reports’ very first issue exposed the fact that consumers who paid more for grade A milk weren’t getting higher quality than those who bought grade B. We also tested milk to reveal that it contained bacteria, proving that pasteurization was not a guarantee of safety. (Watch our recent video on why organic milk is worth the money.)

August 1936: Breaking Bread
In a statement ahead of its time, we lamented that bakers were removing whole grains from loaves, making them less nutritious.

August 1936: Boardwalk Field Trip
We sent a chemist to Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y. (shown at the top), “with sterile test tubes and enough money to buy samples of the drinks and delicacies sold along the boardwalk. The laboratory analysis showed that the sewage-laden sea water is no more contaminated than are some of the ice-creams and soft drinks that cool the bathers” on the shore. (Read our recent report, "How Safe Is Your Ground Beef?")

September 1936: Booze Ruse
Three years after the end of Prohibition, we studied whiskey labels and lauded the government’s crackdown on phony labeling and packaging schemes—putting new brandy in ancient-looking bottles, for instance. But we lamented the fact that there was no labeling standard to indicate the quality of the liquor.

October 1936: Clear as Pea Soup
In our tests of canned peas, we discovered misleading label and ad claims. Some peas labeled “fancy” were so tough and lacking in flavor that they earned our lowest rating, “Poor Quality.”

January 1937: Sticky Secret
In a story about sneaky marketing practices, we scold the makers of Vermont Maid syrup for using rich imagery of the Green Mountain state and tricky words like “the syrup with real, old-time maple flavor” to falsely suggest that the syrup is the real deal when only around 25 percent is pure. The other 75 percent was made up mostly of sugar and water. (Read our recent report, "5 Things You Need to Know About Maple Syrup."

June 1937: Not So Peachy
After evaluating canned peaches for color, uniformity, and other factors, we declared, “The regular diner at an oyster bar has almost as good a chance to find a pearl as the regular buyer of canned goods has to get a can of Grade A peaches.” (Read our report on pesticides in produce.)

August 1938: A Close Look at Coke
Coca-Cola did not contain “mysterious habit-forming drugs,” we reported. But we warned that it’s not merely a “wholesome drink,” nor “harmless,” pointing out that the popular soft drink was loaded with caffeine and sugar. (Here's another reason to cut back on soda.)

August 1938: Contaminated Ketchup
We published the startling findings that North Dakota officials had discovered stomach-turning ingredients in all 48 brands of ketchup they examined: fragments of insects and worms. Some were above the legal limit for such contaminants—yes, a few bug parts here and there were allowed! (Read "Which Fast Food Chains Serve Meat Raised Without Antibiotics?")


1940s

September 1940: Poison Apples
In the face of a powerful fruit-growing lobby, we warned that consumers faced a serious health hazard as a result of changes in the law that newly allowed higher levels of lead and arsenic pesticide spray residue on apples and pears. (Find out "why old apples can taste great.)

April 1942: How to Grow a Victory Garden
We offered advice to novice gardeners who wanted to do their part to help the war effort; we also rated seeds, fertilizers, and insecticides.

October 1942: Oily Olive-Oil Claims
Little of the oil on the market, we reported, was actually virgin, though it was labeled as such; most of it is “a refined product, bland and relatively tasteless.” In 2004 and 2012, we reported again that this was still a marketplace problem. (Is some "extra virgin" olive oil fake?)

March 1943: Butter Stretchers
During World War II, everyday staples such as butter were scarce. We offered tips to make butter go further, for instance, beating air into softened butter to add volume. We also published a butter-stretching recipe that called for adding gelatin, water, and evaporated milk for more mileage.

April 1944: Pasta Pretenders
Our report on pasta advised consumers not to waste their money on so-called enriched noodles because most of the added vitamins and minerals would be destroyed in cooking. “The vitamin come on is an old gag to make the consumer buy and, in many cases, pay a higher price for a product,” we wrote. (Find out whether Barilla Premium Pasta is worth the cost.)

February 1945: A Chilly Change
Thanks to a new quick-freezing process, we reported that consumers would soon have year-round access to vegetables, corned beef hash, creamed chicken, and other foods “as good as fresh and much more convenient to use.” But in our tests to date we weren’t bowled over by the quality. The move away from cans was accelerated by the burgeoning availability of a new product—the home freezer.

February 1948: Flapjacks Flip
In a test of packaged pancake mixes, we noted that the “modern marvel contains almost as many ingredients as an alchemist’s love potion.” But we did proclaim the pancakes tasty.

August 1948: Bland Brew
“Today’s beers have evolved from pronounced, distinctive flavors toward a blander uniformity,” we reported after testing 29 brands. Pabst Blue ­Ribbon got highest marks, and Stroh’s Bohemian Style was lowest. In a taste test we attempted to settle the great debate of which tastes better: beer in cans or bottles. The verdict: Neither was inherently superior.


1950s

June 1950: Big Gulp
Even as early as 1950, it was well known that sugary colas contained as much as 10 percent sugar and promoted tooth decay. We reported that highly acidic colas might also erode tooth enamel.

October 1952: Cheesy Cheese
In a test of Velveeta and other “process cheese” products, we shared the news that it’s far from the real wheel. “For the texture of the natural cheeses, after they have been ground, melted, and mixed, is quite unlike their original texture, and the flavor, too, usually undergoes changes.”

September 1958: Hot Diggity
We analyzed hot dogs, describing them as “variable creatures” that use spicing, smoking, and processing to “conceal the identity of the raw materials used.” Our tests showed many to be contaminated with bacteria, and we called for government grading standards and freshness date coding. (Find out how you can prevent food poisoning from listeria bacteria.)

January 1959: Frozen Dinner Time
In the six years since frozen TV dinners hit the market, annual sales exploded from 8 million to 110 million. We lauded their convenience and low price but said, “If high-quality gustatory experience is the paramount consideration, preparing a meal the hard way . . . remains your best bet.” (Find out what to watch for when it comes to supermarket prepared meals.) 

March 1959: Nuclear Reaction
Following nuclear weapons testing, radio­active strontium-90 showed up in milk, posing a potential hazard to the American diet, according to a Consumer Reports analysis. Our work prompted the government to expand its monitoring of fallout and bolstered public support for the 1963 nuclear test-ban treaty.

 


1960s

Lloyd J. Harriss apple pie box cover
Consumer Reports October 1969 apple pie box

July 1960: Fad Diets Debunked
By 1960 many dieters were reaching for Metrecal, a powdered meal-replacement drink that was billed as the long-sought-after answer to painless weight reduction. We deemed it a low-risk way to jump-start weight loss but warned that “any attempt to reproduce a balanced diet in powder or pill form runs the risk of omitting essential nutritional elements.”

September 1960: Beware That Burger
An investigation of ground meat turned up unappetizing findings. Some of the 198 samples had as much as 49 percent fat; were watered down; contained sulfite, an illegal adulterant used to preserve meat color; or were contaminated with mold, even rodent hair. (Learn how to serve a safer burger.)

March 1961: Hamming It Up
“Getting an honest ham for your Easter dinner this year is going to be a matter of luck,” we concluded, after exposing a new Department of Agriculture regulation that allowed meat packers to pump ham full of water and not tell consumers.

January 1963: Fishy Fish Sticks
Consumers were being urged to eat more seafood, but when our testers evaluated frozen fish sticks, fillets, and shrimp, they described the general quality as “dismal.”

October 1969: Not Like Grandma Used to Make
If only the pies in the box tasted as luscious as they looked on the packages, we said of the 33 frozen apple, blueberry, and cherry pies we tested. Although we described most of the crusts as generally tasty, inside was “a plenitude of viscous liquid filler and a paucity of fruit."


1970s

February 1972: Being Frank About Franks
In a story called “Why are these additives still used?” we noted that every brand of franks we evaluated contained some chemical curing agent such as sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite. Not only are those agents poisonous in large doses, we warned, but they may also cause cancer.

October 1972: Talking Baby Food
Jars of baby food—including meats, fruits, vegetables, and desserts—contained mostly water, we revealed, based on our tests. Some also contained too much salt, sugar, and starch, ingredients that, “in excess, aren’t good in training infants in healthful eating habits.”

March 1973: Filthy Food
In a scathing commentary, Consumer Reports blasted the Food and Drug Administration for allowing a “stomach-churning assortment of insect parts and larvae, fish cysts, mold, rot, rodent hair and excrement” in the nation’s food supply. Our strong statement came in response to the FDA’s release of data on the amount of filth permitted in food, which the administration had kept secret. (Read "A Safer Food Future, Now," by Eric Schlosser, the author of “Fast Food Nation.”)

April 1973: Microwave Safety Check
We recommended warning labels for microwaves after our engineers discovered that the new cooking devices leaked radiation at levels they could not be sure were harmless. Our findings led to more stringent standards, improved safety features, and warning labels. Eight years later, all of the microwaves in our tests met federal standards.

June 1974: Cleaning Up Drinking Water
In a landmark three-part series, we concluded that many community water supplies may be contaminated with potential carcinogens, viruses, heavy metals, and chemicals. Our reports played a role in the enactment of the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. (How safe is your drinking water?)

May 1975: Fast-Food News Flash
As low-cost fast-food meals grew to a $10 billion-per-year industry, we cautioned that almost all of the meals sold at burger, chicken, and seafood chains contained too many empty calories and lacked essential nutrients. (Read our report, "Which Fast Food Chains Serve Meat Raised Without Antibiotics?")

August 1975: An Insect Part in Every Pot
In addition to the meat, vegetables, and sauce declared in the ingredients lists, we found “unappetizing-­but-­not-­unhealthful” traces of insects and rodent hairs in all eight brands of frozen pot pies we tested.

March 1976: Oh, Bologna
Don’t feed kids too much bologna or other processed meats, we urged parents, citing concerns about fat, sodium nitrite, and “astonishingly high” levels of added salt.

June 1977: Instant Breakfast Breakthrough
New bars and powdered drinks were “a fast way to develop poor dietary habits,” we reported, adding a caution for parents not to serve kids “what appears to be a candy bar or a milkshake” for this important meal.

March 1978: Sweet Tooth
We warned of the dangers of sugar, including the corn syrup that processors were increasingly adding to foods, saying it can cause tooth decay, diabetes, obesity, even heart disease.

May 1978: Crying Fowl
In an expose we declared: “The modern chicken’s life is a prison drama. The agri-business bird lives out its short span in a cramped cage. Its beak is clipped, lest in frustration it cannibalize any kinfolk within reach. A conveyor belt continuously provides food laced with additives that tint its flesh or make it gain weight fast.” We also flagged concern over the use of antibiotics in animal feed that could lead to bacterial resistance in humans.

 


1980s

Natural cereal and organic apples pouring from bags
Consumer Reports July 1980 cover image

July 1980: ‘Natural’ Nonsense
The use of a word like “natural” implies a health benefit, but because of a lack of regulation, all too often that benefit doesn’t exist, we explained.

September 1981: Fruit Foul
We challenged the Federal Marketing Order for navel oranges, which kept prices artificially high despite bumper crops by ordering the destruction of a half-million tons of fruit. This marked the beginning of years of work to eliminate government sanctions and limits on certain commodities.

October 1981: Caffeine Cautions
We analyzed the caffeine content in sodas, raising questions about the potential health risks to adults and children. Shortly after, the “cola wars” escalated, with Coke and Pepsi introducing caffeine-free versions of their sodas. (Read our recent report, "Why Americans Can't Sleep.")

May 1989: Bad Apples
Apple processors promised in 1986 to stop using Alar, a chemical linked to cancer. But when we tested apples and apple juice, we found still ­unacceptable levels. We also revealed that Beech-Nut executives cheated customers by selling “apple juice” that contained little or no juice.


1990s

August 1990: Beefs About Beef
In a series of articles dubbed “Planet Watch,” we shed light on the environmental effects of everyday products. In this one, we tallied the resources—notably water, grazing land, and grain—that cattle consume and ask readers to consider: “Is eating beef wasteful?”

November 1990: Udder Progress
After completing a six-month analysis of the safety of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a drug given to dairy cows to stimulate milk production, we published “Biotechnology and Milk: Benefit or Threat?” Although the drug was approved for use, it increased rates of udder infections and proved so unpopular with consumers that today almost all milk is produced without rBGH.

February 1992: Fish Tale
A six-month investigation of fresh fish raised serious questions about quality, wholesomeness, and safety. Almost half of the samples were contaminated with fecal bacteria; some were contaminated with banned chemicals (polychlorinated ­biphenyls, or PCBs) known to ­promote cancer in lab animals and to pose a possible hazard to developing fetuses.

May 1993: No-Fat Falls Flat
“The label ‘fat free’ can give any food the aura of nutritional quality,” we asserted, and at the same time “promise to fulfill an ancient human desire: pleasure without guilt.” But in our various taste tests of fat-free cakes, yogurt, and frozen desserts, most did not fare well.

August 1993: Sports Drinks Strike Out
Few Americans are active enough to need sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade, we said. They are sold with promises that the average amateur athlete may find hard to resist, that they “are supposed to help you play harder and better with greater endurance.” For most, we concluded, plain water is just as good. (Don't be fooled by coconut water and other new Sports drinks.)

January 1998: Overseeing ‘Organic’ Labels
As the federal government moved closer to implementing a program to reduce confusion as to what the term truly meant, we went on a cross-country shopping spree. The takeaway: Side-by-side tests of organic, green-labeled, and conventional produce concluded that the organic versions had minimal or nonexistent pesticide residues. (Read our recent report, "Peeling Back the 'Natural' Food Label.")

March 1998: Chicken Caution
In the first of a series of chicken investigations we would continue over the next 18 years, we found harmful bacteria in 71 percent of our almost 1,000 store-bought chickens. We asserted that testing for salmonella (the only organism tested at the time) was not a measure of other harmful bacteria such as campylobacter, which was even more prevalent.

March 1999: Pesticides in Produce
In a unique study of USDA data, we analyzed pesticide levels in 27,000 fruit and vegetable samples and found that many levels were too high. After our report, one of the pesticides we highlighted for its toxicity—methyl parathion—was banned for use on many food crops. (Find out whether peeling fruits and vegetables reduces the risks from pesticides.)


2000s

September 2004: Olive Oil Analysis
What’s the difference between a $4 bottle of olive oil and a $20 bottle? Often, not much more than $16 and fancy packaging, we concluded. In blind taste tests of extra-virgin olive oils, we found that inexpensive Goya beat oils from big names such as Filippo Berio, Bertolli, and Colavita. We noted that terms such as “extra-virgin” were not verified by the U.S. government.

January 2006: Organic Progress
We spearheaded passage of a California bill prohibiting any fish or seafood product from being labeled “organic” until formal certification standards exist. The Department of Agriculture still has not developed those standards. (Read our recent report, "The Trouble With Labels Like 'Natural' and 'All Natural'")

October 2006: Increasing Food Oversight
We helped to defeat the National Uniformity for Food Act, industry-driven legislation that would have barred states from addressing foodborne hazards, leaving food safety oversight solely to the FDA, and undermining food inspection and other local efforts. We also led the fight to pass a California law allowing public health officers to reveal the names of retailers and restaurants that sold USDA-recalled beef and poultry, so consumers could better protect themselves from foodborne illnesses. Prior to our campaign, that information had been kept secret.


2010s

July 2010: Protein Overload
We tested protein drinks and powders that were claimed to build muscle, promote weight loss, or deliver a quick energy jolt, and found that many contained toxic heavy metals.

October 2010: Store Brands Stand Out
As the country emerged from a recession, Consumer Reports surveyed Americans about their supermarket buying habits and learned that 93 percent of store-brand buyers intended to keep buying as many store brands as they had in tough times. In our taste tests, store-brand groceries were often at least as good as the leading national names and sold for about 25 percent less on average.

January 2011: Food Safety Rules Gain Teeth
Consumers Union was one of several key groups that fought to pass the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, the first major overhaul of food safety rules in more than 70 years. Our experts helped shape the new law, including a provision empowering the FDA with recall authority.

October 2011: Protecting Babies and Kids
After our repeated tests found bisphenol A (BPA) in plastics and canned foods, our years of lobbying paid off and we were instrumental in helping to ban the dangerous chemical in baby bottles and sippy cups. In 2012 the FDA imposed a national ban.

January 2012: Arsenic Exposé
Though the FDA tried to reassure consumers that apple juice is safe, a Consumer Reports probe, which included tests of apple and grape juice and scientific analysis of federal health data, revealed that 10 percent of samples contained high levels of arsenic, a known carcinogen. The problem was especially troubling because children drink a lot of juice. In response to our findings, the FDA proposed limiting the amount of arsenic in apple juice. (See "Arsenic in Your Juice" for more information.)

November 2012: Another Arsenic Warning
In a continuation of our series about arsenic, we signaled another cause for concern: worrisome levels of arsenic in rice and rice-cereal products we tested. We recommended that consumers (especially pregnant women, infants, and children) limit their rice intake and demanded that the government set federal standards.

January 2014: Caramel Coloring Concern
Our tests revealed varying levels of 4-methylimidazole (4-MeI), a potential carcinogen, in widely sold colas and other soft drinks containing certain types of caramel color. In response, the FDA said it would further study 4-MeI in food. Our 2015 retest showed that levels had dropped. (For more details, read "New News About Caramel Color in Soft Drinks.")

February 2014: Dirty Chicken
In our tests of more than 300 raw chicken breasts, 97 percent harbored bacteria that could make consumers sick. More than half of the samples contained fecal contaminants, and about half harbored at least one bacterium that was resistant to three or more commonly prescribed antibiotics. The Department of Agriculture had a standard for broilers but not for poultry parts; recently the USDA established standards for parts.

May 2014: GMOs in the Spotlight
Consumer Reports found genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in many packaged foods, including many labeled “natural.” With strong support from Consumers Union, Vermont became the first state to mandate labeling of packaged foods that contain GMOs, something the majority of consumers say they want. The law has withstood challenges in the courts but is scheduled to take ­effect in July. (See our GMO guide.)

October 2014: Mercury in Fish
The government has urged Americans to eat more fish, but we warned that consuming too much of certain species could put consumers at risk for exposure to mercury, a toxin that can damage the brain and nervous system. Also, our food safety experts disagreed with the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency about how much tuna women and children may safely eat. (Read our report, "Too Much Tuna, Too Much Mercury.")

October 2015: Wanted: Safe Beef
Consumer Reports’ test results reaffirmed that ground beef can make you seriously sick, particularly when cooked to temperatures lower than 160° F. We urged Americans to lobby lawmakers to improve inspection practices, protect the public by banning the sale of beef with disease-causing antibiotic-resistant salmonella, prohibit chicken waste in cattle feed, disallow the misleading “natural” label on meat, and ban antibiotic use for disease prevention. (Read "How Safe Is Your Ground Beef" for more details.)

October 2015: Making Antibiotic-Free Meat the Law
Consumer Reports’ efforts led to California becoming the first state to restrict antibiotic usage in meat production. The law is scheduled to take effect in January 2018; it prohibits the routine feeding of antibiotics to otherwise healthy food animals to prevent disease or promote growth. We continue to fight to end the use of antibiotics in meat production. 

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.