Monday, November 30, 2009

The Great Cranberry Crisis of 1959

Here's a belated Thanksgiving post, although is probably works better as a post-Thanksgiving post, since it's about food contamination.

I was listening to a great podcast from Angel Baby's show "Lost in Paradise" (November 23 show). She played a superb rockabilly record that I wasn't familiar with: "Cranberry Blues" by Robert Williams and the Groovers, a song about the Cranberry Crisis of 1959. I started researching the crisis, and that led to this post.

The herbicide aminotriazole, introduced in the mid 1950's, had been effective in controlling weeds in cranberry bogs. In 1958, in spite of concerns about the possible carcinogenicity of ATZ, it was approved by the Department of Agriculture, but only for use after the end of the growing season,, so as to avoid contamination of the cranberry crop. Most of the 1957 crop turned out to be contaminated, and was voluntarily taken off the market. I'm not sure what happened with the 1958 crop.

The problem was not resolved, as a small percentage of the 1959 cranberry crop from Washington and Oregon was contaminated. Following the advice of the FDA, Arthur Flemming, the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, recommended against eating cranberries from these states. This of course was really bad timing for the cranberry industry, as it was close to Thanksgiving. Since it was diffiult to determine the origin of cranberries, sales dropped nationwide. Many supermarket chains refused to carry cranberries. This had a long term impact on the cranberry industry , and it took a long time for it to fully recover.

This crisis occurred during the early stages of the 1960 presidential campaign, and candidates Kennedy and Nixon did their part in demonstrating the safety of cranberries; Nixon by eating lots of cranberry sauce and Kennedy by drinking several glasses of cranberry juice in front of reporters.

These articles discuss the cranberry crisis.

There is an extensive discussion of the crisis in"A Scientist at the White House", the diary kept by President Eisenhower's science adviser George Bogdan Kistiakowsky. Sorry for the long URL.

The November 23, 1959 issue of Life magazine had an interesting article on the crisis, with some great photos that I can't embed, including one of "Secretary Flemming" being carried to an ambulance after being hung in effigy.


  1. I love cranberries ! Never was aware of the crisis.
    Jim Sinner played the Cranberry Blues and it is a fabulous record !
    Thanks Bob as I always enjoy reading your blogs !

    Cyndy :>)