The Illinois food industry has a long and rich history. Illinois can lay claim to key food innovations; major food industries including confections, processed meats and cereals; some of the largest global food companies; a plethora of ancillary industries supporting the food industry including packaging, manufacturing and retailing; and successful food entrepreneurs who continue to innovate, developing exciting new food products and concepts.
As the leading city in one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, Chicago has long been a center for the conversion of raw farm products into edible goods. Best known for its dominance in meatpacking, since the 1880’s Chicago has also been home to leading firms in other areas of the food processing industry, including cereals, baked goods, and candy.
Grains: Early in Chicago’s history, grain milling was the most important food activity. By 1860 Illinois was the number one producer of corn and wheat in the United States. Wheat, oats, barley, rye, and corn arrived to Chicago from Iowa and other Midwestern breadbasket states. The Chicago area mills continue to support the highly industrialized milling and cereal business.
Commodities Market: Chicago’s geographic location as a hub of exchange in the food industry led to the creation of the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT), first organized in 1850 as a voluntary association of businessmen that implemented regulations for grading grain. The board provided a platform that allowed farmers and livestock owners to access markets across the United States and world, provided price stability and stimulated interest and re-investment in agriculture. Merchants went from handling grain in bags to buying and selling bulk grains for cash, storage, or future.
Food Processing:Notable baking companies with roots in Chicago include the Quaker Oats Company, Nabisco, Keebler, and Sara Lee.
The thriving meatpacking industry triggered the growth of many successful canned foods and processed meats companies. By the late 1880’s Chicago canners, including a subsidiary of Swift & Co., were packing 35 million cans annually. Mayer (Oscar) & Co. is one noteworthy company with roots in Chicago.
Proximity to the dairy stronghold of Wisconsin helped Chicago become the home of many major dairy processors, including Beatrice Foods, Dean Foods, and especially Kraft Foods.
The late 1800’s and early 1900’s also saw the development of the confectionery industry in Chicago. Founded in 1891, the William Wrigley, Jr. Company included chewing gum brands Juicy Fruit and Wrigley’s Spearmint. Tootsie Roll Industries, home of the Tootsie Pop and Junior Mints, has been located on Chicago’s South Side since the 1960’s. Chicago is also the birthplace of sweets icons Cracker Jacks, Milk Duds, and Brach’s.
Chicago was the center of the meatpacking industry from the Civil War to the 1920’s. The Big Three – Philip Armour, Gustavus Swift, and Nelson Morris and dozens of other meatpackers were located in or near the Union Stock Yards, which housed the livestock market. Secondary industries sprouted up and with the help of chemists, transformed by-products into fertilizer, glue, glycerin, ammonia and gelatin.
The successful rise of the meatpacking industry in Chicago did not come without a cost. At the turn of the century Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle exposed the industry’s unsanitary processing facilities and dangerous working conditions. This led to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, which put federal inspectors in all packinghouses whose products entered interstate or foreign commerce. The reform also resulted in the establishment of the Bureau of Chemistry that became the Food and Drug Administration in 1930. In 1909 Chicago also became the first city in the United States to require compulsory milk pasteurization.