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The Great Thanksgiving Cranberry Scare of 1959

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 23, 2023 3:00 am

The Great Thanksgiving Cranberry Scare of 1959

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 23, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, 400 million pounds of cranberries are consumed by Americans each year. Twenty percent of that is during the week of Thanksgiving. That's 80 million pounds! And 5,062,500 gallons of jellied cranberry sauce are consumed by Americans every holiday season. Here’s the History Guy to share the story of the Great Cranberry Scare of 1959.

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Find it at all major retailers. This is Lee Habib and this is our American Stories. And all show long, we're celebrating Thanksgiving with stories of all kinds. And our next story comes to us from a man who is simply known as the History Guy. His videos are watched by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages on YouTube.

The History Guy is also heard here at our American Stories. 400 million pounds of cranberries are consumed by Americans each year. 20% of that is during the week of Thanksgiving.

That's 80 million pounds in a week. And 5 million gallons of jelly cranberry sauce are consumed by Americans every holiday season as well. Here's the History Guy to share the story of the great cranberry scare of 1959. The history of US regulation of domestically produced food and pharmaceuticals goes back to the end of the 19th century and a pioneering researcher named Harvey Washington Wiley who was the chief chemist of the Department of Agriculture's division of chemistry. And from those early beginnings that regulatory environment developed in fits and starts over time as consumers and government and industry tried to develop the best way to protect the nation's food supply. And one of the first great tests of that regulatory environment came in 1959 when a new regulation ran into a venerable product and resulted in what has been described as the nation's first great food scare. The great cranberry scare of 1959 changed the way Americans looked at their food, trusted their government and consumed their cranberries.

It's history that deserves to be remembered. Born in 1844, Harvey Wiley was a Civil War veteran who had degrees in both medicine and chemistry. He was offered the post of chief chemist for the Department of Agriculture in 1882, largely because of his expertise in the chemistry of sugar as the department was interested in growing a US sugar industry based on sorghum. In the position, Wiley started conducting research into the adulteration and misbranding of food and drugs on the American market, including so-called poison squad studies where the effects of a diet consisting in part of the various preservatives were tested on human volunteers. The studies and subsequent publications moved the public, including a campaign where a million US women wrote the White House and spurred Congress to pass the landmark Consumer Protection Act called the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, also called the Wiley Act.

For his contributions, Wiley was popularly called the father of the Pure Food and Drugs Act. While the act gave the Division of Chemistry some regulatory power, its ability to enforce regulation was constantly challenged and the ever-present wrangling between industry and regulation led to a 1927 reorganization of the Division of Chemistry into the Food Drug and Insecticide Organization, which then in 1930 was renamed the Food and Drug Administration or FDA. A growing consumer movement, pressured by muckraking journalists and events such as the tragic mass poisoning caused by the untested pharmaceutical elixir sulfenilamide that killed 100 people in 1937, pressed Congress to give the FDA significantly more robust powers with the 1938 Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act.

The act has been amended many times and today is the center of the Food and Drug Administration's, which today has nearly 15,000 employees in a budget in excess of five billion dollars, regulatory power. One of the amendments to the act was driven by James Delaney, a US congressman from New York, who chaired a select committee to conduct an investigation and study of the use of chemicals, pesticides, and insecticides in and with respect to food products. The results of his findings resulted in the 1958 Food Additives Amendment to the Food Drugs and Cosmetic Act that was commonly called the Delaney Clause. It read, the Secretary of the Food and Drug Administration shall not approve for use in food any chemical additive found to induce cancer in man or after tests found to induce cancer in animals. The reasoning behind the strict nature of the Delaney Clause was stated by influential researcher Dr. Wilhelm Fueper, who testified before Congress. I do not believe that one can establish a safe dose of carcinogens, he said.

I do not think that we have the method or evidence available but which we can reliably determine a safe dose. The legislation was undoubtedly well intended but it would lead to some thorny questions as we have found out that essentially pretty much anything can give a rat cancer if you give it to him in a large enough dose. And one of the first tests of the amendment had to do with the berry from a dwarf evergreen shrub called Vaccinium Macrocarpin, otherwise known as the North American Cranberry. Cranberries are naturally hard, sour and bitter. The name is likely derived from cranberry and is because part of the flower of the shrub resembles the neck, head and bill of a crane. There are many cranberry varieties in Europe where the name was derived. But the North American berries were introduced to colonists by Narragansett peoples who had harvested wild berries at least from the 16th century, perhaps much farther back. The berries were often ground with dried meats into pemmican, a highly nutritious preserved food that was a significant part of Native American cuisine. The berries were also used for red dyes and due to their astringent qualities in medical poultices. Despite the sour taste they were recognized fairly early for their nutritional value with a 1672 book noting they're excellent against the scurvy, a quality derived from their high vitamin C content.

The same text noted their sour taste and said that they were generally boiled down with sugar to make a sauce for meat that is a delicate sauce, especially with roasted mutton. To understand how cranberries fit in with the Delaney clause you have to understand the unique nature of the fruit. Cranberries grow on trailing vines like a strawberry but the vines thrive on a special combination of soils and water properties found in wetlands. Cranberries grow in beds layered with sand, peat and gravel that are commonly called bogs.

The bogs were originally formed by receding glaciers which carved impermeable kettle holes lined with clay. The clay lining prevented materials from leaching into the groundwater and as the glaciers melted rocks and organic materials were deposited on top of the clay creating the ideal environment for cranberries, which require acid peat soil and adequate fresh water supply and a growing season that extends from April to November. Wild cranberries of Massachusetts for example flower in June and July and are ready to pick by September. North American cranberries were being exported to Europe by the 17th century and recipes for preserving the berries as well as making sauces, tarts and pies were common in the 18th century in both American and English cookbooks.

Still because of their unique nature, cranberries were still being collected wild not cultivated. And you're listening to the History Guy telling the story of the great cranberry scare of 1959, when we come back more of the History Guy here on Our American Story. Folks, if you love the great American stories we tell and love America like we do, we're asking you to become a part of the Our American Stories family. If you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation.

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Modern growers still spread an inch or two of sand on their bogs every three years. As the berries grow on vines, the vines do not need to be regularly replanted and some Massachusetts vines are reputed to be over 150 years old and still producing fruit. Hall's innovations allowed greater production than a commercial industry grew that, combined with a greater availability of granulated sugar, allowed the fruit to grow in popularity. As it did it grew in association with the holiday season. The berries were bright, shiny, red, making excellent decorations. They were harvested and available in winter and as they are slow to spoil, lasted well through the Christmas season.

The season was also known for feasts of roasted meat which went well with cranberry sauce. Cranberries became so popular that after the Civil War successful efforts to grow cranberries in New Jersey led to what has been described as a cranberry fever, a rush of investment to grow cranberries that was largely a bust as the plants are finicky and the people hoping to get rich quick had little understanding of how to actually grow them. Cultivation methods slowly developed including less time-intensive methods of harvesting. This was largely the result of careful study of growing factors and methods and the finicky nature of the plant meant that the industry developed growers organizations early on, which worked not just to help develop growing methods but to collectively market the product. The success of a century of effort really showed in 1959 when the industry had already become a 50 million dollar a year business. In 1959 looked to be a bumper record crop, 125 million pounds.

Growers were expecting to make record profits and likely they would have, except for the Delaney clause. The problem was an herbicide called aminotriazole. A chlorophyll inhibitor, aminotriazole was used by cranberry growers starting in the 1950s to eliminate sedges, rushes, horse tails and deep-rooted grasses from the bogs, clearing the water for the cranberries. Growers were instructed to use the chemical only after the harvest so as to keep it off the finished fruit, but trace amounts could still exist in extremely small quantities.

Manufacturers petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration to allow small amounts of residue, up to one part per million if necessary. But the FDA rejected the petition, there was a problem. New research had suggested that large long-term doses of the chemical suppressed thyroid function in rats, encouraging tumors, possibly cancerous, to form. That made aminotriazole a carcinogen and while the study suggested that a rat would have to eat a vast quantity of contaminated cranberries over its entire lifespan to increase its risk for cancer, the Delaney clause said that carcinogens were not acceptable in any amount. When trace amounts of the chemical were found in a part of the cranberry crop just 17 days before Thanksgiving, the reaction by the FDA resulted in the Great Cranberry Scare of 1959. The chemical was found in a few shipments of berries from Washington in Oregon, states which produced a tiny fraction of the annual crop. But strictly reading the new Delaney clause and in an abundance of caution, the Secretary of Health Education and Welfare, Arthur Fleming, moved to limit the sale of berries from Washington and Oregon until the industry could develop a plan to separate out the contaminated berries. But the true damage came when a reporter asked the Secretary whether a housewife should buy cranberries for her family.

Fleming answered that if a housewife wasn't sure of the origin of the product then, to be on the safe side, she doesn't buy. Suddenly cranberries were not safe, contaminated with a terrifying sounding aminotriazole. Despite the fact that only a tiny portion of the crop had tested positive for the chemical, grocery stores pulled cranberries off of shelves, restaurants dropped them from their menus and some communities banned their sale.

Life magazine published a list of alternative dishes including spiced crab apples, frosted grapes, currant jelly and beach plum preserve. John Deckus, a cranberry grower from Massachusetts said on National Public Radio, we had 40 trailer loads of cranberries canceled within one hour after that announcement. My reaction at the time was, oh my god, it's over. Ocean Spray, a cranberry grower cooperative, tried to limit the damage. The executive vice president sent a telegram to Fleming, we demand that you take immediate steps to rectify the incalculable damages caused by your ill-formed and ill-advised press statements yesterday. There were efforts by politicians as well. Richard Nixon, then vice president and campaigning for president, ate four helpings of cranberries on November 12th. That made the headline of the Washington Post the next day. He stood proudly for the berry saying, I, like other Americans, expect to eat traditional cranberries with my family on Thanksgiving Day. Not to be outdone, the Democratic nominee Senator John Kennedy conspicuously drank two glasses of cranberry juice the next day. The Post then noted bipartisan cranberry consumption.

Unconfirmed reports said Kennedy quipping, if we both pass away I feel I shall perform the great public service by taking the vice president with me. This was the first great modern foods care in the nation. It was a time of more powerful media, of a more educated public, of more distrust of corporate motives. People were bombarded with contradictory science and breathless news reports. The FDA tried to limit the damage, creating a testing and labeling program to clear berries before Thanksgiving. But the death blow came Thanksgiving Day when the first lady, Mamie Eisenhower, served applesauce instead. The AP headline read, no cranberries for president. The season was a disaster, the cranberry industry reported 20 million dollars in losses in January.

Ocean Spray announced it laid off a third of its workforce. Sales were 70% below normal for Thanksgiving and 50% below normal for Christmas. The industry needed some 10 million dollars in subsidies just to survive the season.

It was also unnecessary. In the end more than 99% of the crop was found to be uncontaminated and a few batches that were were in minute amounts. Not one person is known to have been harmed by the berries. There's really a mixed legacy for the Great Cranberry Scare of 1959, it did give rise to some consumer advocacy that achieved some important reforms. But also according to Dr. Elizabeth Whalen of the American Council of Science and Health, the 1959 Cranberry Scare set the stage for decades of completely unnecessary anxiety about trace amounts of agricultural chemicals and additives in food. The cranberry sales rebounded the following year but the industry learned a valuable lesson.

One of the reasons that the scare had been so devastating is that the product was almost exclusively consumed in the short period of the holidays, which made it extremely vulnerable to disruption. Cranberry juice was produced and sold at the time but it was really actually formulated for the taste of growers, not the general public, and it wasn't marketed by the industry. But the industry started to create products like cranberry juice cocktails and dried cranberries that make cranberries popular year-round and therefore less vulnerable to disruption. And over time the industry actually grew. Cranberry crop today some seven times what it was in 1959.

The industry stopped using aminotriazole altogether but it's still used in non-agricultural settings like clearing grasses from highway medians. Over time the zero tolerance policy for carcinogens became unsustainable, partly because of the cranberry scare. Testing methods improved and as New Yorker magazine noted, in the years that followed the cranberry scare, dozens and then hundreds of chemicals would prove carcinogenic in humans or animals.

Testing sensitivity increased a million fold. Strict application of the law, one researcher noted, undermined the ability of the food and agricultural industries to produce almost any food stuff that was free of some degree of contamination. More flexible methods of assessing toxicity were needed and the Delaney Clause was finally fully repealed in 1992, but definitive answers still elude us. Consumers are still caught between advocates in industry, still faced with conflicting science, and still confronted with what seems to be ever more common, food scares. And a great job on the production as always by Greg Hengler and a special thanks to the History Guy for bringing us the 1959 cranberry scare. And it's typical of how regulations work and how overreaction and the news work.

I mean people love a good news story. And imagine the headline, and this is Eisenhower right? This guy led America through World War II but he wouldn't eat cranberries. No cranberries for the president, screamed the headlines around the country and of course put an end to the business of cranberries essentially for that year.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-11-23 04:17:44 / 2023-11-23 04:26:45 / 9

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