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.