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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

A history of "safe" products, US food in the 1800s

It took 27 years to pass a law about food safety and purity, but in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. It was supposed to ban trafficking in adulterated or mislabeled food. Mislabeled food being claims that food contains X when it doesn't, or failure to mention the drug has poweful drugs like cocaine or morphine. The book The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, played a big role in exposing fraudulent tactics of the food industry in the 1800s. Some examples:
  1. Ketchup sometimes contained rotten tomatoes, including maggots.
  2. Sausage used a lot of garlic to cover up the smell of rancid meat. The poorest people frequently got sick from this meat but it was all they could afford. 
  3. Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine, but when that was outlawed, Coke replaced it with high levels of caffeine. Coca-Cola replaced cocaine with caffeine in 1903. 
  4. Sodium benzoate was banned in the 1906 law but it is in use today. There are some accounts of sodium benzoate in sodas combining with another chemical, under the right conditions, releasing benzene, a highly toxic chemical. 
  5. This and the next 2 examples from the UK: To whiten bread, for example, bakers sometimes added alum (K2SO4.Al2(SO4)3.24H2O) and chalk to the flour. (Source.)
  6. Mashed potatoes, plaster of Paris (calcium sulphate), pipe clay and even sawdust could be added to increase the weight of their loaves. 
  7. Rye flour or dried powdered beans could be used to replace wheat flour and the sour taste of stale flour could be disguised with ammonium carbonate.
In 1938 this law was replaced with the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Medicine and pharmacology was still in its infancy and "patent medicine" made all kinds of claims it could not prove, and they were also the target of the 1906 act. These "patent medicines" often contained high level of medicines (which was one way people got alcohol during Prohibition), morphine or opitate derivatives. If a baby got too much morphine it could kill her.

Examples of Ketchup

  1. The caption reads “Made from Decomposed Material. Prosecuted July 3, 1909. Fined $50. N.J. 388.” The Notice of Judgement on this product called for the condemnation of 745 cases of this tomato catsup. It was found to contain high levels of yeasts, spores, bacteria, and mold.
  2. "When the food law went into effect in North Dakota there was but one brand of catsup, so far as I am able to find by my records, which was pure-that is, free from chemical preservatives and coal tar coloring matters. Many of the catsups offered for sale in the State were made from the waste products from canners-pulp, skins, ripe tomatoes, green tomatoes, starch paste in considerable quantity, coal tar colors, chemical preservatives, usually benzoate of soda or salicylic acid, the whole highly spiced and not always free from saccharin. In other instances the basis for the catsup was largely pumpkin." From The Alarming Adulteration of Food and Drugs by Porter J. M'Cumber.

Examples of Meat Adulteration

From Porter J. M'Cumber. "The Alarming Adulteration of Food and Drugs," The Independent. 58: 2927 (January 5, 1905). 28-29, 31. 
  1. "More than 90 per cent of the local meat markets in the State were using chemical preservatives, and in nearly every butcher shop could be found a bottle of Freezem, preservaline or iceine, as well as Bull Meat Flour. The amount of borax or boracic acid employed in these meats varied to a considerable extent, and expressed in terms of boracic acid in sausages and hamburger steak would probably range from 20 grains to 45 grains per pound, while the medical dose is from 5 to 9 grains per day. The use of these chemicals is not confined to local butchers; scarcely a ham could be found that did not contain borax. In the dried beef, in the smoked meats, in the canned bacon, in the canned chipped beef, boracic acid or borates is a common ingredient."  
  2. "Ninety per cent of the so-called French peas which we have taken up in North Dakota were found to contain copper salts in varying quantities, and in a few samples, in addition to copper salts, there were present aluminum salts." 

As you can see, corruption in the US food industry has been going on for 150+ years. It was a similar problem in Britain. See "The Fight Against Food Adulteration" from


Book: "Swindled : the dark history of food fraud, from poisoned candy to counterfeit coffee."

The Fight Against Food Adulteration. Food problems in the UK. 
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair. Exposing the fraud in the US meat industry in the 1800s. Free, in many formats including HTML, epub, and PDF. More sources of The Jungle from
Virtual Museum of Public Service.
Wikipedia, Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

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