Inspection, Governmental

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INSPECTION, GOVERNMENTAL. One way that federal, state, and local governments enforce their regulations. Most inspections pertain to safety (e.g., elevators), health (e.g., eggs), or environmental protection (e.g., clean air). Inspection can be controversial. Some critics argue that it violates the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches, and courts have occasionally ruled that regulatory agencies must obtain warrants before conducting inspections. Others contend that the protection of public health and safety supersedes the right to privacy.

Though businesses have typically considered inspections to be unnecessary government interference, some of the first American inspection laws were passed on behalf of commercial interests. In the mid-eighteenth century, for example, the tobacco colonies of Virginia and Maryland initiated tobacco inspection to raise prices, which were low because too many growers tried to sell "junk tobacco."

A few inspection programs geared toward consumer protection appeared in the early nineteenth century. For instance, many cities created health agencies empowered to conduct inspections when epidemics struck. Nevertheless, government regulation and inspection did not really take off until after the Civil War, when a hectic new society characterized by rapid immigration, industrialization, and urbanization seemed to require elaborate forms of control.

Facing another cholera outbreak, New York City in 1866 created an extremely powerful Metropolitan Board of Health to deal with the problem. Dozens of inspectors were assigned to specific neighborhoods to clean streets and dispose of garbage and thereby prevent the spread of the disease. The epidemic was less severe in New York than in most other American cities, many of which soon adopted rigorous programs of health and sanitary inspection of their own. Gradually over the next several decades, cities hired inspectors to enforce a number of new building, fire, and health codes. States were also involved in early regulation and inspection efforts, such as mine inspection in Illinois and agricultural inspection in Wisconsin. All these efforts belonged to the emerging Progressive movement, whose members believed that only an active government could curb abuses of private power.

The federal government was slower to enact Progressive legislation, but after the Interstate Commerce Commission was created to regulate railroads in 1887, Congress started using its power under the commerce clause to regulate and inspect a variety of industries. The most important regulatory legislation of the Progressive Era provided for the inspection of food products. A weak law covering ham and bacon for export passed in 1890, followed the next year by legislation covering most kinds of meat for domestic and foreign markets. Early in 1906, Upton Sinclair published his muckraking novel, The Jungle, which documented the awful squalor of meatpacking plants. President Theodore Roosevelt ordered an investigation, and Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act on the same day (the Pure Food and Drug Act did not mandate inspection until it was amended in 1938).These 1906 laws were pillars of Progressive regulation, and similar legislation in a number of other areas quickly followed. In 1911 Congress created the Bureau of Mines to monitor mine safety, and federal grain inspection began in 1916.

The biggest post–Progressive Era wave of regulation and inspection came in the late 1960s and early 1970s, another period in which grassroots consumer and environmental movements were agitating for a more active government. After the consumer advocate Ralph Nader published his auto safety expose Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), more than ten states passed new auto inspection laws. In 1970, Congress established two large and important regulatory agencies: the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), which inspects workplaces, and the Environmental Protection Agencies, which inspects air and water quality.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, regulation had fallen out of favor. President Ronald Reagan promised to limit the role of government, and he started by slashing the budgets of regulatory agencies. Though George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton slowed the trend, regulation and inspection has not enjoyed the full support of government since Reagan took office.

Although a wealth of regulatory agencies continue to do their work, inspection is often spotty due to budget and staff limitations. OSHA inspectors, for example, cannot cover all 6.2 million workplaces in the country. Spurts of regulation and inspection have tended to follow disastrous events and popular movements. In normal times, communities' inspection needs often slip under the radar.


Eisner, Marc Allen. Regulatory Politics in Transition. 2d ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Goodwin, Lorine Swainston. The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusaders, 1879–1914. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1999.

Mintz, Joel A. Enforcement at the EPA: High Stakes and Hard Choices. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Rosenberg, Charles E. The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.


See alsoFood and Drug Administration ; Muckrakers ; Pure Food and Drug Movement .