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Pundit Mailbag — Food Safety
And Presidential Politics

Back in March we ran a piece, Friday The 13th, March 1989…Important Date In Produce History, which dealt with the cyanide scare on Chilean grapes. The piece brought a quick response advising us of another important date in produce history. With the election upon us and Thanksgiving soon to be here, we thought now is an appropriate time to run this letter:

Another important date in produce history is November 9, 1959. The issue of food safety and protecting the public health may have actually had its genesis 49 years ago on that date with the “Cranberry Scare.”

The USDA had certified the herbicide aminotriazole for post-harvest weed control on cranberry bogs but some growers used the herbicide pre-harvest because it produced better yields. Aminotriazole residue showed up in FDA tests, so in 1957 the FDA confiscated 3 million pounds of cranberries. In 1958, incidents of contamination dropped, but the story didn’t end there.

In 1958, Rep. James Delaney, a Democrat from New York, inserted an amendment into a bill that became known as the Delaney Clause: “No additive shall be deemed safe if it is found to induce cancer when ingested by man or animal.” This gave the FDA authority to ban any food containing a suspected carcinogen.

On November 9, 1959, just two weeks prior to Thanksgiving when the majority of cranberries for the entire year were about to be sold, the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Arthur S. Fleming, announced that some cranberry products were contaminated by a weed killer called aminotriazole, and that the FDA had evidence that the herbicide caused cancer in rats. Consumers were told to not buy cranberries unless they were certain about the product’s safety.

This set off a nationwide panic; growers protested and went to Washington, DC. Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy ate platefuls of cranberry sauce for the press, but the Cranberry Scare could not be reversed. This was the Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce. Cranberries were harvested, drenched with kerosene so that they would not be eaten (or delivered for a second time to an unsuspecting handler), and then buried in landfills. Sales of cranberry products fell by more than 60%; growers lost about $20,000,000 at that time.

Eventually it was learned that the cranberries with aminotriazole residue were limited to a few producers in one state, and the USDA reimbursed growers $10-12 million for their losses. It was also reported that based on the concentration of aminotriazole detected in the residue, a person would have had to eat 15,000 pounds of cranberries every day for several years to ingest the equivalent dose consumed by the rats.

As they say, every cloud has a silver lining. The Cranberry Scare actually was a turning point for the Ocean Spray Cooperative. The cooperative felt that it needed to reduce its dependency on holiday sales, so Ocean Spray invested in new products like cranberry apple juice, and the rest is history.

— Jack Crooks
American Mushroom Cooperative
Wayne, Pennsylvania

Indeed the “Cranberry Crisis” was the first modern food safety issue involving a chemical additive. It also showcased an early use of a de facto government ban:

Secretary Flemming at a press conference specially called just 17 days before Thanksgiving: two batches of the cranberry crop from Washington and Oregon had been found contaminated from improper use of a toxic weed killer called aminotriazole. The chemical, he said, had been tested on rats and had caused thyroid cancer. And so consumers should avoid buying Washington and Oregon cranberries until a way is found to separate the good berries from the bad. In fact, said Flemming, housewives should be “on the safe side” and not buy any, unless they could be sure that the berries were not tainted. As his advice hit the headlines, housewives, supermarkets and restaurants swept cranberries off their shelves, shopping lists and menus.

No Tolerance. “This is a disaster,” cried George Olsson, president of Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc., a cooperative for 1,079 growers who produce 75% of the nation’s 62,000-ton cranberry production. Cranberrymen, he said, have used aminotriazole with care — even before the Agriculture Department set a rule requiring that bogs could be sprayed only after harvest, to prevent contamination of berries. (In 1957 Ocean Spray took more than 3,000,000 lbs. of a suspect crop off the market.)

Secretary Flemming (Arthur S. — for Sherwood — Flemming, U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare) had acted on the strength of a Food and Drug Administration (part of his HEW department) ruling that allows no tolerance of aminotriazole. Yet even the experts proved to be divided on whether the feeding of aminotriazole caused cancer in rats, and there was no evidence that it would produce cancer in humans. And anyway, by the standards used on the rats, a human would have to stuff down about 15,000 lbs. of cranberries a day over the years to get the same symptoms. Said Dr. Chester E. Cross, director of the University of Massachusetts Cranberry Station: he would as soon eat a helping of tainted cranberries as smoke a cigarette.

No Hope. The cranberry farmers dismally predicted that Flemming’s feverish warning had crippled the industry for years to come. They were convinced that no matter how many lots of berries might be cleared for the coming holidays, edgy housewives would still refuse to buy them.

Neither were they cheered by the fact that Agriculture Secretary Ezra Benson, who has enough trouble with the farmers, performed a kind of ritual sacrifice by gulping down a bowl of cranberries in public to show that he was behind the industry. In Wisconsin, Presidential Hopeful Jack Kennedy loyally tossed off a couple of glasses of cranberry juice, and Vice President Nixon cheerfully ate four helpings of sauce. (Afterward, agents seized a tainted Wisconsin batch.)

The Delaney Clause actually had a significance beyond what Jack implies. The Delaney Clause did not merely “give FDA authority to ban any food containing a specific carcinogen;” it prohibited the FDA from approving any additive that was found to cause cancer in man or experimental animals.

Since it is often pointed out that “the dose makes the poison,” the Delaney Amendment was opposed by the FDA because there was no science connecting rat cancer from the consumption of massive quantities of an item with human cancer caused by normal quantities consumed by humans.

The clause never applied to fresh produce but to processed items. Pesticides were finally removed from the Delaney Clause by a 1996 amendment to the Food Quality Protection Act.

The schizophrenic attitude of the government toward food safety was evident even then. After the Secretary of Health and Human Services issued his advisory, the Secretary of Agriculture and the two Presidential candidates, Vice President Nixon and Senator Kennedy, rushed to proclaim that they would ignore the warning.

That attitude has changed. Can you imagine if the Secretary of Agriculture, John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had all pledged to eat tomatoes after the FDA de facto ban? This might have made a difference. Maybe we have to remember to bring such a history lesson to the politicians next time FDA gets hysterical.

In any case, as we vote, we can remember that there was a moment when the Presidential election focused on produce.

Many thanks to Jack Crooks and the American Mushroom Cooperative for prompting us to remember a time when food safety and Presidential politics intersected.

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