I don’t have any right to sit on information of this kind.
– Arthur S. Flemming
Now that you’re stuffed by another Thanksgiving Thursday, let me tell you the story of the year when Americans were afraid to eat.
That would be 1959, and that would be because of the Great Cranberry Scare.
Yes, 52 years ago, a warning bulletin from the U.S. secretary of health horrified housewives, perplexed politicians and gave TV comedians a new gag line.
It began earlier in the month when Secretary Arthur S. Flemming announced the nation’s cranberry supply might be contaminated by a weed-killer called aminotriazole. For some reason, the nation panicked.
The next day, Nov. 10, 1959, a front-page story at the top of The Augusta Chronicle passed along the alarm, and it got worse. In fact, in the weeks that followed, The Chronicle had 65 stories referring to what it termed the latest “Red Menace.”
Flemming tried to calm things down. On Nov. 17, The Chronicle reported, he held another news conference to say the tainted cranberries were very limited. He knew this because government chemists had tested 3.5 million pounds of cranberries.
The panic, however, continued. On Nov. 19, The Chronicle reported more bad berries had been found, only hours after the government had said everything was probably OK.
By now, nobody knew what to believe and, to be safe, they stayed away from cranberries.
On Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26, a front-page Chronicle photo shows a little boy looking at his plate with the headline: “What, No Cranberries?” He’s making a face.
The next day, Flemming was reported to have enjoyed cranberries with his Thanksgiving meal. Most Americans did not seem ready to join him.
Looking back five decades, scientists still talk about the nation’s reaction.
“The cranberry scare of 1959 set the stage for decades of unfounded anxiety about trace levels of agricultural chemicals and additives in food,” Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, the president of the American Council on Science and Health, wrote in 1999.
Maybe so, but maybe something else was to blame.
“Frankly,” a 1959 Chronicle editorial concluded, “it all sounds like a Communist plot.”
Or maybe just clever marketing.
You see, before 1959, cranberries were seldom consumed except during Thanksgiving, and cranberry juice wasn’t all that popular.
After the disastrous holiday season, the Ocean Spray company went into overdrive, promoting the health benefits and tart taste of cranberry juice.
Curious consumers began to give it a try, and the production of cranberries began to rise.
Bad news, as usual, sells.