Home Food 101 The “Adulteration” of Our Food Supply

The “Adulteration” of Our Food Supply

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I need to make sure that I have this reference on the blog, in preparation for something pretty hefty I have coming up. In my mind, it’s important to note three things, here:

1) Note how long this has been going on.

2) Pay special attention to the tidbit about locavorism (eating locally) and what happened once we started creating more distance between us and who created our food.

3) Pay even more attention to the Congress’ reluctance to pass any real legislation regarding the food supply.

From my trusty, rusty Oxford Encyclopedia Of Food and Drink:

Adulteration is the practice of adding unsafe amounts of chemical preservatives to foods and drinks, or adding color to conceal inferior or deteriorated food and drink products, or mixing inexpensive foods and drinks with expensive ones so as o reduce costs, or substituting inexpensive foods and drinks for expensive ones. Adulteration has played a large role in the history of American food and drink; the public’s demand for federal protection from unscrupulous and dishonest producers and manufacturers at the beginning of the twentieth century led to the breakthrough passage in 1906 of both the Pure Food Act and the Meat Inspection Act.

Industrialization and Fraud

Although adulteration of American food and drink existed during the eighteenth century, it was not prevalent until the end of the nineteenth century, after dramatic changes had taken place in the nation’s food industry. Before the end of the Civil War in 1865, most food was obtained locally; bread came from the town baker, meat from the local butcher, seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables from nearby farms and milk from a neighbor’s cow. Americans knew where their food was made and who made it. The distance between producer and consumer was usually the length of a handshake – a distance that ensured the quality of most food products by means of the producer’s personal guarantee. Preservation of food was primitive; sophisticated forms of chemical preservation were unavailable and unnecessary. Most farms had a root cellar to store vegetables, and a springhouse – a small building constructed over a spring, in which cold springwater was collected – to keep milk and butter cool. Fresh fruits were dried in the sun, preserved by canning, or conserved in jams and jellies.

After the Civil War, as industry moved people from rural to urban areas, ciies grew and Americans became distant from the producers and manufacturers of their food. By 1875 a nation railroad system transported food from farms and ranches to centrally located urban processing locations; in turn, the railroads carried jarred, tinned and paper-packaged food to distend consumers.  America had developed a national commerce in food.

The distance food traveled and the time that elapsed between production and sale created significant problems with respect to preservation. Food producers hired chemists who addressed these problems by using various chemical additives to prevent decomposition, hide decay, restore natural color and modify flavor.  As the food industry grew and food became big business, few consumers knew how their food was produced, manufactured or handled. Taking advantage of this situation, many food companies directed their chemists to develop inexpensive goods as fraudulent substitutes for more costly ones, thereby decreasing costs and increasing profits. For example, apple stock was jarred and sold as blackberry, currant or plum jelly: the cores, skins and rejected portions of apples were made into an apple stock or juice, which was then artificially colored, flavored and jellied.

Fraudulent suppliers would package and price inauthentic produces as if they were the real thing. It was said, for example, that if every square food of Vermont was planted with sugar maple trees, there would not have been enough trees to account for the amount of “Pure Vermont Maple Syrup” sold in America. American drinks were also adulterated. Caramel color was added to fresh raw whiskey in order to mimic the amber color of barrel-aged whiskey. Sugar and caramel color were added to make inexpensive young brandy look and taste like expensive aged brandy.

Over time, dishonest manufacturers were profitable, while many honest competitors failed. Consequently, by the the end of the 19th century, most American food and drink was adulterated. Against this wave of corporate irresponsibility there arose in the united states a movement supporting a return to pure food. The leader of this effort was Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, the chief of the department of agriculture’s bureau of chemistry. he was joined in the crusade for pure food by other chemists who had been hired by state governments to help enforce state pure food laws. These chemists had designed analytical tests to determine if a food product was pure. Their analyzes proved that most of America’s food was adulterated for producer’s economic benefit. These chemists and their supporters concluded that the only solution to this widespread problem was a national law prohibiting adulteration.

For approximately 25 years, between 1879 and 1905, the pure food movement was unsuccessful in its attempts to get a national pure food law passed by Congress. During that period more than 100 bills were introduced in Congress; all of them failed under lobbying pressure from big business in the form of food and liquor manufacturers.
Forces of Change

Just after the turn of te 20th century, however, three significant events ultimately resulted in the enactment of a pure food law. First, adulteration of food became a hot topic at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. Although this 7-month event, which drew 20,000,000 visitors, is important in American food history for the introduction and popularization of ice cream cones, iced tea, peanut butter and contain candy, there was an important pure food presentation at the fair as well.

In one of the exhibit halls, food companies set up impressive displays of their canned and bottled foods– but many of these foods were artificially colored. Chemists from the National Association of State Dairy and Food Departments opened a booth nearby with their own exhibit. They had extracted the dyed from many of the artificially colored foods on display and used those dyes to color pieces of wool and silk. They attached a certificate to each piece of cloth, documenting the properties of the dye and naming the food that contained the dye. The brightly colored cloths were disturbing to most visitors and became a vehicle for the chemists manning the booth to educate people about the need for a national pure food law.

The state chemists’ exhibit attracted the attention not only of the general public but of legislators and newspaper and magazine writers. In the words of one of the state chemists, the exhibit “kindled a fire of public interest which no power on earth will be able to put out.”

The second significant event focusing attention on adulteration of food was Dr. Wiley’s study of the effects of chemical preservatives on healthy people. Twelve young men volunteered to eat their meals at the Bureau of Chemistry in Washington, D. C. They agreed to eat pure food only; however, the volunteers also took capsules that contained increasing doses of chemical preservatives. For this reason, the press gave the volunteers the melodramatic title “the Poison Squad.”

When Dr. Wiley testified before the House of Representatives in February of 1906, he reported that the volunteers suffered various degrees of illness, including stomach pain, dizziness, nausea and significant weight loss. Nine of the twelve had to drop out of the experiment because of illness. The poison squad experiments proved to many Americans that chemical preservatives were harmful to their health.

The third significant event was the publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle in February 1906. In The Jungle, Sinclair exposed the evils of immigrant victimization in Packingtown– the stockyards and slaughterhouses of Chicago. His fictional account shed light on te fact that immigrants from European countries were paid [grossly inadequate] wages and required to work long hours in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.

Although Sinclair’s novel was not about pure food, American readers focused their attention on the dozen or so pages of the book that described the evils of the meatpacking industry. Sinclair vividly portrayed the unsanitary conditions in the slaughterhouses, the limited scope of federal meat inspections, the ineffectualness of inspectors, the hush money paid to have diseased animals removed and processed elsewhere, the potted (canned) meats dyed to conceal spoilage or inferior quality, and the poisoned rats and poisoned bread ground with meat to make sausage.

At the time The Jungle was published, a pure food bill was in dire trouble in the house of representatives. The bill had been introduced in the senate in December 1905 after President Theodore Roosevelt recommended that Congress try again to enact a law “to regulate interstate commerce in misbranded and adulterated foods, drinks and drugs.” While the new bill was pending in the senate and facing strong opposition, the American medical association notified the senate leadership that America’s physicians planned to ask their patients to pressure the senate to pass the bill. Shortly thereafter, on February 21, 1906, the bill was brought to the floor and passed. The pure food bill was sent to the house, but republican leadership decided that the bill was too controversial and slated it to die quietly in committee without reaching the floor for a vote.

President Roosevelt read The Jungle in March, 1906. Concerned about the impact of Sinclair’s novel of American meat exports, Roosevelt sent investigators to Chicago; these investigators confirmed Sinclair’s account of adulteration in the meatpacking plants. They found filthy conditions in the workrooms: meat contaminate by dirt, splinters, pieces of rope, rubbish, and the “expectoration of tuberculous and other diseased workers.”

Roosevelt decided that a law was needed to increase the scope of meat inspections at the plants, so that federal inspectors would exercise complete control over the meatpacking process. A new law, solely focused on meat inspection, met with significant opposition in Congress, particularly in the House, but a compromise amendment ultimately passed, called the Meat Inspection Act. President Roosevelt obtained its release from committee, where it had been languishing. pushed along by Roosevelt, the impetus of the meatpacking reform legislation, and the pure food reformers, te pure food bill finally passed congress. It was signed into law on June 30, 1906.

The Pure Food Act prohibited the introduction into interstate commerce of any food that was adulterated or misbranded. The statutory definition of adulteration was broad. It included the addition of any substance that diminished the food’s quality or reduced its strength; the use of a fraudulent substitute; the removal of any valuable part of the food; the concealment of any damage or inferiority by coloring, coating of staining; the addition of any poisonous or deleterious ingredient; and the incorporation of any filthy, decomposed or putrid animal or vegetable substance into the food.

Enforcement of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and its successor, The Federal Food, Dug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, greatly decreased the adulteration of food during the 20th century. Adulteration has not been eliminated, however. Some specific foods are recurring targets of this activity: honey and maple syrup adulterated with ‘high fructose corn syrup”, sugar beet syrup or sugarcane syrup; chicory, cereal or other fillers added to coffee; other food oils blended in with pure olive oil; synthetic vanillin substituted for real vanilla bean extract. In addition, uninspected imported food presents a significant risk of illness from unregulated, excessive amounts of chemical preservatives. In the early 21st century, it remains to be seen whether the federal government will muster sufficient resources to defeat the continuing problem of adulteration.

My contention with this blog – and always has been – is that the more unadulterated our food is, the more able we are to return to our original natural instincts with food: less snacking, far less overeating, less excess weight, more control, more “will power.” I feel like this excerpt offers up a pretty good portion of why such is true. At any point in time where an entity can make more money by adding chemicals – whether that be by skimping on the ingredients or by adding chemicals to make food “addictive,” you can trust them to do that. I, personally, prefer to not have to trust them at all. Perhaps with this upcoming series on the blog, more people will do the same.

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Eva October 6, 2011 - 9:16 AM

Great piece. But what to do? Before 1865 most people themselves lived in rural areas. After the Civil War (remember there was a HUGE loss of life in that war) a lot of people moved to the cities for work. It was then that people started to move away from where food was produced, and yes bad things did happen. But as I said, what to do? It’s good to grow your own food, but what happens if a crop goes bad? Would hundreds, or thousands of people starve (as what happened during the Irish Potato Famine)? I can grow my own food for me, but can that be done for 200 million people in the USA?

Erika Nicole Kendall October 6, 2011 - 7:10 PM

Eva, let’s be real – it can’t be done for everyone, but I’m inclined to think that we’re an enterprising country – if they can see that we want food that is devoid of chemicals and other foolishness, if they want to make money then industry will give us what we want at the price we are willing to pay for it. It’s not about growing your own food – we didn’t all grow our own food back then – it’s about un-screwed-with food. This “hopeless” type of attitude doesn’t fit here, I think.

ab January 23, 2013 - 6:16 PM

I like this comment however if there is one thing to learn from the Irish Famine, it is that one should never overtly rely on just one crop. thats what the Irish did and that’s 1 reason for the severity of the effect.

We can learn a lot from some of our West African brethren who pioneered crop rotation and the separation of cash crops and food crops.
It worked well until external forces decided trading wasn’t enough they wanted their entire farms and ownership (but thats a diff tangent)

Lorrie October 6, 2011 - 3:42 PM

This is a well informed blog. I appreciate the content and have learned more about chemicals in food from a historical sense. The article is thorough and does not leave much unsaid. When I read it, I could not stop. Very interesting stuff for foodies who love clean healthy eating. The three points you made in the beginning of the blog touch on what Urban Planning and Smart Growth in our communities is all about. Building communities that include planning where the stores are located in relation to our homes, mixed-use homes for all family types close to parks with decent transportation options, farmers markets that support local farmers that bring fresh foods to your neighborhood all to promote walkability, community and better health. City planning is connected to how we live and we must not turn a blind eye to city politics or elections that put people in local office who make the decisions regarding these matters….okay I will get off my soap box! Great blog!

Navonne October 6, 2011 - 4:25 PM

I have been surfing, browsing and digging your blog on so many levels! I am 5 feet 8 1/2 and over 220 lbs and never been one to consider surgery or even “diet pills: Your personality and light are ever present with your words. The passion you have for good food that you can make and a healthy lifestyle needed to be placed on a public forum and I am sho glad I found it! I have you on my list of things when I can get it together and am all over your meal plans! I plan on doing the Budgetarian and Meal Plan 1. People are saying nothing but good and that I am sure makes you very proud because you truly ‘cannot please the masses” but the feel you do-they are the ones that count anyways (in my sassy opinion).
Just dropping some praise and positivity! I am happy each day to read your blog and you are a true inspiration to me!!!!

Kim November 21, 2011 - 8:30 PM

That is really scarry! I knew that thing were added to alot of foods and my family is using more buyer beware attitude. That is really sad that we have to worry about what we consume causing illness

Mish Clark September 19, 2013 - 10:57 AM

This article is not about the potato famine @Eva. This article is to wake people up about the “food” they’ve been unconsciously consuming. If you can grow your own then do so and share the bounty as Erika has done here.
Those who can’t or won’t grow their own can use their voices to make the necessary changes needed in our food supply. Everyone has a role. No one is asking you to divide the fish and feed the masses. Geesh!
Great post E. Mwah!!!

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