Category: Archive

Hibernian Chronicle: The Great Cranberry Scare of 1959

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Rather, Americans were responding to a recommendation from the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to avoid cranberries because tests had revealed traces of a cancer-causing pesticide in some supplies. The warning ultimately proved unwarranted, but not before Americans endured the first in a succession of scares over chemicals in the food supply and the cranberry industry suffered losses in the millions.
The unwitting cause of the whole sorry incident was Irish American Congressman James J. Delaney, who added a clause to the 1958 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1958 barring any additive in food shown to cause cancer in humans or lab animals.
Native Americans gathered wild cranberries long before the first European settlers arrived, using them to flavor foods like dried venison. The Pilgrims incorporated cranberries into their diet and eventually developed a sweetened sauce patterned on similar berry sauces made in England. Commercial farming of cranberries began in Massachusetts in 1816 when an enterprising farmer developed a technique for cultivating the berries in bogs covered with a thin layer of sand.
As production increased, so too did the popularity of the tart berries in the national diet. Massachusetts led the nation in production, followed by Michigan and Wisconsin. In 1930, three growers formed a farmer’s cooperative called Ocean Spray and soon introduced cranberry juice to the market.
The harvest of 1959 was one for the record books, coming in just under 125 million pounds. The vast majority of it was destined for cranberry sauce, most of which sold in November and December for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s dinners. Growers were anticipating record sales when disaster struck.
In early November, Arthur S. Fleming, Secretary of Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, issued a warning to consumers that traces of the weed killer aminotriazole had been found in Oregon and Washington State. He urged Americans to “be on the safe side” and avoid consuming cranberries until the crop had been tested and deemed safe. Given the time required to carry out such testing, he all but guaranteed that the sale of cranberry products for 1959 would crash to historic lows.
Fleming was motivated to make this announcement by his reading (incorrect, as it turned out) of a provision in the 1958 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1958 that prohibited the sale of any food shown to contain cancer-causing chemicals in humans or lab animals. The so-called Delaney Clause, considered by many consumer advocates and environmentalists to be one of the most important early federal health regulations, was authored by Congressman James Delaney, a Democrat from Long Island.
Born in 1901, he was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1944. Although he later became one of the most conservative members of the House (he served until 1978), he initially styled himself as a liberal in the Harry Truman mold. The Delaney Clause — his greatest legacy in thirty years in Congress — emanated from his conviction that government had a responsibility to regulate industry to protect the health and well-being of the public.
Unfortunately, while the legacy of the Delaney Clause in the coming decades would be largely positive, its first invocation in the cranberry scare of 1959 produced only panic for the public and near financial ruin for growers. To begin with, the pesticide was found in Washington and Oregon, states producing only a fraction of the national crop.
Secretary Fleming clearly overreacted in making a blanket statement urging Americans to avoid cranberry products. In addition, Fleming misread the Delaney Clause, which prohibited the sale of food products containing dangerous chemicals. Fleming sounded the alarm when pesticides were found only in raw harvested cranberries, not cranberry juice or sauce. Finally, later research showed that the amount of pesticide found was miniscule.
Understandably, the cranberry industry was furious. The executive vice-president of Ocean Spray held a press conference and read a telegram he’d sent earlier that day to Secretary Fleming: “we demand that you take immediate steps to rectify the incalculable damages caused by your ill-formed and ill-advised press statements yesterday. You are killing a thoroughbred in order to destroy a flea. You must know that there is not a shred of evidence that a single human being has been adversely affected by eating allegedly contaminated cranberries.”
But the damage was done. On November 15, the New York Times reported that, “Some communities have banned the sale of all cranberry products, numerous large grocery chains have removed the products from their shelves and many restaurants have dropped cranberries in any form from their menus.”
Cranberry growers, nearly all of them small family farmers, lost millions of dollars.
The Great Cranberry Scare lasted only one season and the industry, with nearly $10 million in compensation payments from Congress to make amends for the government’s mishandling of the incident, saw sales rise to normal levels the next year. But the fear in the general public over carcinogens and other harmful chemicals in the food supply would never go away. Indeed, they would only grow in the coming decades with the publication of Rachel Carson’s famous book, Silent Spring (1962), the founding of numerous environmental, public health, and consumer protection organizations, and occasional scares like that in 1989 over Alar in apples.
Congressman Delaney died in 1987. While his obituaries made mention of the Cranberry Scare of 1959, they likewise noted that the Delaney Clause was very likely his greatest accomplishment as a lawmaker. It played a key role in empowering federal officials to improve the quality of the food supply by banning dangerous chemicals.
That’s something to be thankful for this Thursday — Happy Thanksgiving!

Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm

Nov. 25, 1864: Confederate spy Robert Kennedy and several others unsuccessfully attempt to burn New York City during the Civil War.
Nov. 25, 1952: George Meany becomes President of the American Federation of Labor.

Nov. 23, 1859: Outlaw, William H. “Billy the Kid” Bonney, is born in New York City.
Nov. 25, 1925: Leader of American conservatives, William F. Buckley, is born in New York City.

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