Rick Nichols: The fight for pure food: Easy-to-swallow government regulation

WASHINGTON - Visitors patrolling the aisles of the National Archives' best-attended show in years last week may have felt curiously at home, though the images on display - warnings about toxic candy, putrid tins of Chicago-packed meats, and ketchup bottles blowing their tops - were hardly soothing.

This was the Archives' first "scented exhibit," said staffer Miriam Kleiman; subliminal notes of fresh-baked apple pie perfumed the air.

The project is called "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?", and if little else in the precincts adjoining the nation's majestic official repository seems currently beyond dispute, no complaints appear to have been lodged (yet) about the selection of apple pie as the exhibition's olfactory motif.

That pie-consensus excepted, the exhibition's subject - government's role in America's diet and food safety - has been a fierce battleground more often than a walk in the garden, Victory or organic.

So it was instructive, in the days leading up to the latest round of Republican presidential debates, to take in the 100-year-old photos of seized caches of frozen contaminated eggs, images of Vesuvian ketchup bottles, and field notes from a nascent breed of government inspectors ("food police," had an honorable ring back then), one documenting the death of a child from toxic candy.

If there was a favorite whipping boy in the debates, besides the omni-convenient Barack Obama - it was "regulation," preceded typically by honorifics on the order of "nit-picking" and "job-killing."

The Archives' exhibition ranges far wider, to be sure, than its chronicle of the "food frights" that inspired the protections of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. The walls are alive with botanical studies painted by Agriculture Department artists, 1925-vintage posters urging home-gardening, and the adventure story of a globe-trotting government "food explorer" named Frank W. Meyer, whose name would forever attach to a lemon he brought back from China.

But for anyone doubting the need for robust government regulation - especially when the public gullet is being assaulted - the exhibition is a persuasive primer. (Note to tea party skeptics: Imported tea, historically bulked up with fillers to increase weight and mask off-flavors, had already been regulated for 24 years by 1906.)

Making the case - and contrasting with brighter images - are images from the darker side of the food landscape at the dawn of the last century.

Processed food was in its infancy then, and often dangerously adulterated, mislabeled, or poorly packaged. Toxic lead solder sealed the tops of cans. Children's candy was made in filthy factories. Dairy cows were crammed in dank brewery basements, fed spent mash. Their milk had a bluish tint.

Muckraking journalists had a field day churning out exposés, chief among them Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, depicting the brutal working conditions in the Chicago stockyards. (Still, it was the contaminated meat he also described that helped light the fire of food-safety - more than labor - reform: "I aimed for the public's heart," he wrote in 1907 to President Teddy Roosevelt, "and by accident I hit it in the stomach.")

Roosevelt, a progressive Republican of a breed now extinct in American politics, wasn't a hard sell. As a rough-riding colonel in the Spanish-American War, he'd seen U.S. troops felled by rations of adulterated meat that could be more lethal than enemy fire.

But it was a stunt engineered by the first chief chemist of the United States (and later the first head of the new Food and Drug Administration), Harvey W. Wiley, that helped rally women's clubs, tip the political balance, and undermine the anti-regulation stance of the meat-packers and food processors.

It was called the "Poison Squad."

The squad was composed of a dozen volunteers fed meals laced with additives common at the time - borax, sulfuric acid, and formaldehyde. Newspapers eagerly reported the unsurprising results - a rash of headaches, nausea and vomiting.

Not that the average family didn't already know something was amiss. Ketchup, once produced by 100 companies, was typically made from tomato cores, skins, floor sweepings, and red dye. It was prone to ferment and explode the caps off its bottles.

The cure was worse - unhealthy amounts of benzoate of soda added to tame the beast.

Eventually, it would be a Pittsburgh entrepreneur, Henry J. Heinz, who found he could dispense with benzoate or other artificial preservatives by manufacturing in a clean factory with ripe tomatoes.

So, one could leave the Archives realizing that shoddier companies were indeed - and properly - disadvantaged by the purity movement and by new regulations that banned deceptive labels, unsafe chemicals, and "decomposing and putrid" products.

Some jobs, too, were surely killed in the process. But just as certainly, countless lives were surely saved.

And one honest pioneer - H.J. Heinz Co. - not only stayed in business (currently employing 35,000 workers) but prevailed: an American success story.

As enduring as the proud legacy of the Pure Food Act itself.


Contact Rick Nichols at richard.nichols@comcast.net.