PBS American Experience featured a program on the food industry over the last 125 years. Abhorred at the lack of unspoiled, unadulterated foods was truly eye-opening and disgusting, especially for those living in the ever-growing urban areas. The last month I have resubmitted posts on this subject. Ellen Swallow Richards and her clean water crusade and last week on the poisons of Monsanto and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Monsanto was in the thick of things even 125 years ago and lobbied congress so to keep their assaults on our health.
Before Betty Crocker there was Fannie Farmer. Fannie was a suffragette and helped change how Americans prepared their foods. Harvey Wiley was a chemist for the FDA who made many political enemies when reporting on the spoiled and toxic foods being sold to the public, foods without any oversights. Because of the hostility from corporate lobbyists and getting very little support from the government legislators who had much to loose from said lobbyists, after a few gains, namely the pure food and drug act, and after nearly 30 years championing unadulterated foods, he resigned his post and soon found new work at the Good Housekeeping Institute, where his tests and publications saw a huge audience and where he tested foods and could give them a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” if they met the criteria. Marketing bonanza for those industries who saw the advantages of getting that “seal of approval.” One early success was Heinz Ketchup. Many knockoffs had come to market, but none could match the quality since Heinz recipe was a secret….in the vinegar.
How Harvey made gains was by engaging the Women, in which Fannie was a part of and by using the news reporters of the day. Even before they got the vote, women wielded much power and influence. Harvey gained notoriety by conducting tests on healthy young men, part of his “poison squad,” and documenting the effects of common preservatives used throughout food industries, who hired their own chemists to come up with new ways to preserve foods. Eye opening! Even Europe wouldn’t import American foods because of their lack of regulating, something Harvey had investigated by his visits to their labs.
What gave Harvey his biggest push for legislation, however, was the publication of the book “The Jungle” by Sinclair Louis, which exposed the filth of the cattle industry practices in the slaughterhouses of Chicago. Once published, the FDA sent their own investigators and found the conditions worse than even book had exposed. This led to the passage of more laws and oversight consequences. Everything from milk and canned foods and soda pop, namely Coca Cola, saw labeling requirements. Women pushed for changes and became advocates to see them through.
Fannie Farmer found ways to support them with her own cookbook addition to the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. In it she standardized measurements, gave helpful hints for shopping for groceries, and how to look for freshness. Her own book, The Fannie Farmer Cook Book, 12 editions in 70 years, has sold four million copies. She championed nutritious foods. Farmer also included essays on housekeeping, cleaning, canning and drying fruits and vegetables, and nutritional information.
It’s important for us all to be aware of our foods. Since we have moved away from raising our own, from canning and drying, to chickens and eggs, we need to trust we are being well informed. Label reading, keeping our regulators on task and the laws strong is all our responsibilities. This is why I blog. The more we know, the better we can respond to what we need. Let’s honor those who paved the way by being aware of our own ways to keep their legacies alive. They did their work for the betterment of all mankind, not for personal gain. So let’s do our part by label reading and supporting legislation that keeps our food and consumer products honest.