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The Great Cranberry Scare of 1959

Most of us boomers can’t imagine what a Thanksgiving dinner would be like without cranberries. The ubiquitous holiday sweet treat figures greatly in memories of our youth. Some families preferred the whole-berry sauce, but Mister Boomer’s family would never think of varying from the jellied variety in a can. Chances are, a can of jellied cranberry sauce was one of your first solo encounters with a hand can opener. If your household was anything like Mister B’s, opening a can of cranberry sauce was an annual event filled with entertainment value and sweet anticipation. The kids would vie for which one would get the honors of opening the can. They’d gather around as the appointed one methodically slipped the can opener onto the lid, squeezed the handles together and twisted the butterfly-shaped metal knob to slowly cut around the lid edge, until the top was free. Flipping the can over on a plate, the can opener was employed again to pierce the bottom, thereby releasing the vacuum. With a couple of shakes, the sweet stuff would at first slither with an amusing low, slurping sound, then eventually plop from its metallic cylinder to the plate below. How could you not love a food that displayed the ridge shapes of the can in which it was stored? Besides, the ridges could also be used as a handy guide for slicing.

For millions of American families, there was no cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving in 1959. That year, a food scare prompted many families to avoid cranberries altogether for their holiday meal. The story actually begins in 1958, when Congress passed an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 that banned from food any substance that could be shown to cause cancer in test animals. Fast forward to November of 1959, and a group of farmers in Oregon and Washington treated their cranberry crop with a weed killer called aminotriazole. Since the crop was ready to harvest, it was the wrong time to spray the chemical because it left a residue on the harvested crop. Aminotriazole had been known to cause cancerous tumors in laboratory rats.

On November 9, 1959, Arthur Sherman Flemming, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare — the parent agency to the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — issued this statement:

The Food and Drug Administration today urged that no further sales be made of cranberries and cranberry products produced in Washington and Oregon in 1958 and 1959 because of their possible contamination by a chemical weed killer, aminotriazole, which causes cancer in the thyroids of rats when it is contained in their diet, until the cranberry industry has submitted a workable plan to separate the contaminated berries from those that are not contaminated.

 A reporter asked Secretary Flemming whether a housewife should buy cranberries for her family; his response set off a national panic. Flemming said that if a housewife wasn’t sure of the origin of the product, then “to be on the safe side, she doesn’t buy.” That was enough for millions of Americans to stop purchasing cranberries or cranberry sauce that year. Cranberry farmers across the country were devastated as even the White House chef chose not to serve cranberries to President Eisenhower, giving the Commander in Chief apple sauce instead. Several politicians and scientists tried to calm the panic. Vice President Richard Nixon was a candidate for President, stumping for votes in Wisconsin. He ate several bowls of cranberry sauce to prove its safety. Senator John Kennedy was in his home state of Massachusetts, the largest cranberry-producing state. He drank two glasses of cranberry juice for the press, but the damage for the holiday had been done, even though there had been no ban on the sale of cranberries.

In January of 1960, a study conducted on the crops in question showed that less than one percent of the crop, and only in those two states, had been contaminated by aminotriazole. In retrospect, many historians agree that Flemming overreacted and presented too literal an interpretation of the Delaney Clause. Tests showed that even in the contaminated crop, huge doses would be needed to reproduce the cancer results previously found in the lab.

Congress allotted $10 million in damages to farmers for their loss, but it was too late to save their 1959 holiday season. It has been said that one positive thing that came out of the situation was that farmers tended to follow pesticide instructions more carefully. The Great Cranberry Scare of 1959 may have been an overreaction, but it acted as the harbinger of what was to come in the 1960s with pesticides such as DDT, which spawned Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and subsequently the environmental movement many boomers embraced into the 1970s.

As you feast on the traditional fixings this Thanksgiving, think about how boomers have played an important role in the government policing of our food supply — and yet how constant vigilance is the name of the food safety game.

What holiday memories of cranberry sauce come to mind for you, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Food & Beverage,Holidays,Pop Culture History and have Comments Off on The Great Cranberry Scare of 1959

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