Ralph Nader, car safety, and the federal response

Ralph Nader’s landmark book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile is the focus of part 4 of our series on the federal government’s management of public health and well-being.

The book came out in 1965, and each of its chapters covered one problem with car safety (an overview can be found at Unsafe at Any Speed).  For instance, the most famous chapter is on the Chevrolet Corvair, and it’s called “The One-Car Accident.” From 1960-3 the Corvair was built with a faulty rear engine and suspension design that led to accidents. Nader also pointed out how shiny chrome dashboards reflected the sun into drivers’ eyes, non-standard shift controls leading to fatal mistakes, and expensive styling changes carmakers prioritized while stating that safer design would bankrupt them. Nader’s strongest point was that automakers knew how dangerous their cars could be, but did nothing about it because of the cost and the fear of arousing public anger.

GM tried to paint Nader as a lunatic. According to testimony in the 1970 case Nader brought against GM, “…[GM] cast aspersions upon [his] political, social, racial and religious views; his integrity; his sexual proclivities and inclinations; and his personal habits; (2) kept him under surveillance in public places for an unreasonable length of time; (3) caused him to be accosted by girls for the purpose of entrapping him into illicit relationships (4) made threatening, harassing and obnoxious telephone calls to him; (5) tapped his telephone and eavesdropped, by means of mechanical and electronic equipment, on his private conversations with others; and (6) conducted a ‘continuing’ and harassing investigation of him.”

Despite this attack, Nader persevered in speaking to the public, and that public’s outcry led to the development and passage of the 1966 Highway Safety Act.

Next time: the federal government gets behind the wheel of car safety

Federal management of our health and well-being: car safety

Here’s part 3 of our small series, inspired by the health-care debate, on whether the federal government can properly look after our health and well-being. We turn here from food and drug safety to cars.

The safety of the cars manufacted by U.S. automakers was completely unmonitored by anyone before the 1960s. For decades Americans drove cars that not only were often unsafe, but were under absolutely no pressure to be safe. There was no consumer protection service for drivers. If your car was dangerous, that was your problem. Causes of accidents were not investigated with an eye to forcing car manufacturers to improve their products. In 1958 the UN established an international “forum” for vehicle regulation, but the U.S. refused to join it. As is so often the case, manufacturers assumed—and protested loudly—that any oversight would be fatal to them, that bankruptcy was the only possible outcome of regulation, and that U.S. consumers did not want safety regulations.

By 1965, all this de-regulation had created a situation where, according to a report released the next year by the National Academies of Science, car accidents were the leading cause of death “in the first half of life’s span” (from the “History of US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration NHTSA” website at http://www.usrecallnews.com/2008/06/history-of-the-u-s-national-highway-traffic-safety-administration-nhtsa.html).

The Big Three responded as they always had—by saying that all accidents were the result of driver error or bad roads. Since the 1920s, U.S. car manufacturers had pushed what they called the “Three E’s”—Engineering, Enforcement and Education”. As Ralph Nader put it (much more about him later) “Enforcement” and “Education” were directed at drivers, and “Engineering” was directed at all those bad roads causing accidents.

With the federal government still reluctant to step in and regulation car manufacturer safety standards—just as Congress, lobbied relentlessly by criminal food manufacturers had refused to step in to regulate food and drug safety—it took a bombshell book to shake up the status quo.

Next: Ralph Nader and Unsafe at Any Speed

The FDA and government regulation of food safety

Part 2 in the series, basically Truth v. Myth, on whether the federal government can be trusted to compassionately and capably protect the public health and well-being, in which we continue our look at the founding of the Food and Drug Administration.

We’ve seen the dangerous and criminal state of food production in the U.S. by the turn of the 20th century. Starting in the late 1800s, some U.S. food manufacturers were petitioning the government to regulate their industry. These were manufacturers that actually spent the money to produce good-quality food, and they were afraid of being driven out of business by those companies that saved a fortune by pasting ashes together, canning it and calling it potatoes. (It’s amazing how many things were canned early on. Potatoes are one example. Even in the 1930s—I saw a movie from the late-30s where a woman says she’s running to the store to buy a can of potato salad.)

Farmers also protested that they took the blame for adulterated butter, eggs, and milk even though they sent good quality material to the manufacturers. “Shady processors …deodorized rotten eggs, revived rancid butter, [and] substituted glucose for honey” (Young, “The Long Struggle for the 1906 Law“).

During the Populist era of reform, one bill for federal food manufacture standards managed to clear the Senate but was blocked in the House. Congressional representatives, well-paid by shady manufacturers’ lobbies, blocked every clean food and drug law that came to them. One bit of progress was that in 1890-1 meat was set aside for special inspection after a scare in Europe over tainted pork from America led to a ban of U.S. meat on the continent. Later in that decade, tainted beef sickened U.S. soldiers in Cuba fighting the Spanish-American War, causing a furore at home. The culmination of the meat uproar was the famous publication, in 1906, of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which described in a brutally unsparing section how meat was processed at the great packing houses in Chicago, detailing the rats, feces, human fingers, and floor sweepings that were incorporated into the finished product. American consumers boycotted meat, with sales falling by half.

This was enough to get Congress to finally act on President Roosevelt’s December 1905 demand for a pure food bill. It wasn’t as easy as it should have been–there was still plenty of resistance in both houses. But thanks to pressure from the president and Dr. Harvey Wiley, a longtime pure food advocate who would be placed in charge of its enforcement, the Pure Food and Drugs Act was passed in 1906.

There was protest from criminal food manufacturers. Whiskey producers complained the loudest, as they were the largest producers of quack medicines. Quack medicines actually accounted for more advertising dollars than any other food or product in the nation in 1906. Their manufacturers claimed the federal government had no right to “police” what consumers chose to buy. This, of course, ran on the incorrect presumption that consumers knew what was in the products they consumed and decided to take the risk (Janssen, “The Story of the Laws behind the Labels”).

Many manufacturers of impure foods claimed that being forced to list ingredients on their labels would put them out of business. Their secret recipes would be exposed! The cost of printing long labels would bankrupt them! Such “technical” labels would turn off customers! Of course, none of this came to pass. Americans were grateful for protection from fraudulent food and medicine, and the Act would go through a few more iterations. The Bureau of Chemistry created to enforce the Act would become the Food and Drug Administration in 1937, and cosmetics would be added to its charges in 1938 when the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was signed by FDR.

The FDA was weakened in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Food supplements, like vitamins and diet potions, are not subject to FDA scrutiny, and are the new quack medicines, just as dangerous and fradulent as 19th-century snake oil. The organization has had its funding cut by deregulation-minded politicians who wanted to re-establish a completely free marketplace for food and drugs.

This negative turn of events merely proves that bad things happen to our food and drugs supply when the federal government relaxes or impairs its oversight of that market. A strong FDA is a vital necessity to American manufacturers and consumers, and a shining example of the power of good federal management of consumer health and well-being to drastically improve both.

Next time, the federal government and car safety.

The federal government–can it run health care? Check with the FDA

The uproar over the proposed health care legislation that is ongoing in the summer of 2009 is puzzling to the historian. Americans who oppose the legislation seem to feel, when you boil their arguments down, that the main problem is that they don’t want the government running any health care program. The government has neither the experience nor the ability, nor even the humanity to oversee any health care program. (This, of course, when the federal government already runs a health program, namely Medicare.)

This lack of faith in government programs is odd. It’s historically unfounded in three major consumer areas: food safety, car safety, and social security. These are three 20th-century areas which the federal government completely overhauled, improved, and maintains well to this day. We’ll look at all three, starting with food safety and the founding of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).

In 1906, the federal government passed the Pure Food and Drugs Act. By that time, Washington had been petitioned for decades to create and enforce food safety laws. It’s hard to imagine today what food was like at the turn of the 20th century. We think of that time as a time of pure, wholesome, real food—the kind of food we’re trying to get back to now, in a 21st century filled with pre-packaged, trans-fat adulterated food substitutes.

But the early 20th century was actually little different from—and in many ways, much worse than—today. Here is a description of a meal served by a respectable woman to house guests in the early 1900s, which Dr. Edward A. Ayers  included in his article “What the Food Law Saves Us From: Adulterations, Substitutions, Chemical Dyes, and Other Evils”: 

“We had a savory breakfast of home-made sausage and buckwheat cakes. The coffee, bought ‘ground,’ had a fair degree of coffee, mixed in with chicory, peas, and cereal. There was enough hog meat in the ‘pure, homemade’ sausage to give a certain pork flavor and about one grain of benzoic acid [a chemical preservative] in each [serving]. I also detected saltpetre, which had been used to freshen up the meat. [Either] corn starch or stale biscuit had been used as filler…

“The buckwheat cakes looked nice and brown [from the] caramel [used to color them]…. and added one more grain of benzoic acid to my portion. The maple syrup [was] 90 percent commercial glucose… one-third a grain of benzoic acid and some cochineal [red dye derived from insects] came with the brilliant red ketchup. [At lunch] I figure about seven grains of benzoic acid and rising. …The ‘home-made’ quince jelly, one of the ‘Mother Jones Pure Jellies’…worked out as apple juice, glucose, gelatin, saccharin, and coal tar.

“I had to take a long walk after lunch; having overheard the order for dinner, I figured on about 10 to 15 grains more of benzoic acid reaching my stomach by bedtime.” 

I looked up benzoic acid, which is still used today as a preservative, and found that the World Health Organization’s limit on the stuff is 5 mg per each kilogram of a person’s body weight per day. I don’t know how much a “grain” of benzoic acid was, but I think the poor houseguests described above were getting way more than that.

Why was food so awful in America at that time? Progress. As Arthur Wallace Dunn described it in his 1911 article “Dr. Wiley and Pure Food…”,

“During the preceding quarter of a century [from the 1880s to 1911], the whole system of food supply [in the U.S.] had changed. Foods were manufactured and put up in packages and cans in large quantities at central points where immense plants had been erected. To preserve the food all manner of ingredients were used, and to increase the profits, every known device and adulteration and misrepresentation was adopted. Many states passed strict pure food [and drug] laws, but they were powerless to [control interstate shipping–any state could ship its impure foods and drugs to another state]. Besides, many state laws were not uniform and were easily evaded.”

The Industrial Revolution brought mass production of foods to the U.S. As the population rapidly shifted from rural to urban, more people were in towns and cities where food was not locally grown, but shipped in to them to buy in grocery stores. Meat was shipped across the country with minimal or no refrigeration. Rotten foods were canned to disguise their state. Chemicals were added in enormous amounts to all types of food. Coal tar—yes, from real, black coal—was slightly altered and used to brighten the colors of ketchup, peas, coffee, margarine, and more.  Here is a short list of such “adulterations,” again from Dr. Ayers’ article:

Jams and Jellies: apple juice mixed with glucose and gelatine

Milk: diluted with water, bulked back up with starch or chalk (yes, chalkboard chalk)

Butter: made of carrot juice, turmeric, and coal tar

Worse yet, margarine, or “butterine”: made from oleo oil [this comes from beef fat], lard, coloring, and cottonseed or peanut oil

Filled cheese: skim milk injected with fat from oil

This was the state that modernization had brought American food production to. Eager to make as large a profit as possible, many food manufacturers basically used scraps, glucose, and oil to make a wide range of foods. Drugs were just as bad or even worse, with unhealthy or even fatal miracle cures constantly on the market. Coca-Cola contained not only real cocaine, but unimaginable amounts of caffeine.

Food manufacturers were not required to label their products. Most canned goods had the name of the product, the name of the manufacturer, and a lovely drawing on them. That was it. No list of ingredients. No expiration date.

How did Americans survive? Through the intervention of the federal government.

Part 2–the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906

The Gettysburg Address on Powerpoint

This famous illustration of how bereft of all real power and meaning Powerpoint presentations necessarily are is by Peter Norvig (www.norvig.com):  Gettysburg

Just click the Gettysburg link above to see one of the great moments in all human history reduced to marketing slides. It is both hilarious and deeply troubling. Once you’ve seen it, you realize how almost all political speeches today can be easily transferred to Powerpoint without losing any of their original depth.