Why is “Reg. Dept. Penna. Agr.” on so many labels?

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Dear Cecil: Can you find out what “Reg. Penna. Dept. Agr.” means and why it’s all over our food? Who cares what Pennsylvania’s department of agriculture thinks? They can’t keep anybody’s food out of Pennsylvania, anyhow--it’s a burden on interstate commerce. And why does this mysterious mark appear on food sold in Canada? Kelly K., Chicago


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

The people of Pennsylvania, apparently, are incurable do-gooders. In 1933, they became concerned about the quality of the new, mass-produced baked goods that were infiltrating their state and passed the Pennsylvania Bakery Law to ensure that all products met their exacting standards for cleanliness and honest weight.

The law requires every baker–that is, virtually anyone who applies heat to his product, including makers of spaghetti, macaroni, pretzels, breakfast foods, potato chips, or what have you–to pass an inspection and obtain a license from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture in order to do business in Pennsylvania. State agents make periodic inspections of registered plants to make sure that the employees are still washing their hands. Because of a similar law in Connecticut, many packages also bear a license number from that state.

Pennsylvania, no matter what its burden on interstate commerce, has every right to decide what baked goods can and cannot be sold within the state. Rather than make up a separate package for Pennsylvanians, most manufacturers incorporate “Reg. Penn. Dept. Agr.” into their standard design–and that includes Canadian as well as overseas operations (“Reg.,” by the way, stands for “registered with,” not “regulated by,” in case you were wondering).

Naturally, Pennsylvanians find it impossible to dispatch agents to every bakery in the world. So they’ve developed a network of contacts with other state (and foreign) agriculture boards, all of which are happy to keep tabs on domestic production for the sake of clean-living Keystoners.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.