Benjamin R. Cohen: Long-Ago Conflicts Over Food "Purity" Echo in Today's Controversies

At a state fair in Meadville, Pa. in 1895, judges awarded a prize in the butter competition to a concoction called Butterine—fake butter shipped in from Chicago that was touted to have uniform appearance, taste, and flavor. A local dairyman entered it as the real thing, but the joke was on both him and the judges. Chemical analysis later showed that the product was, in fact, real butter.

The man who entered what he thought was Butterine had been fighting a state law which required that the product be taxed and described as adulterated. The local dustup over the "fake" butter that turned out to be real drew the attention of The New York Times, which later reported on the controversy.

It was just one of many during the 1800s as farmers, grocers, consumers, and public officials grappled with a changing agrarian system. It was a time when concerns over adulteration in foods reflected larger societal issues about trust and acceptable moral codes, according to Benjamin R. Cohen, an assistant professor of science, technology and society at the University of Virginia and a 2009 Smithsonian Fellow at the National Museum of American History.

"While chemists sought to introduce better means for defining and then detecting adulterants as early as the 1820s," Cohen told a 22 July seminar at AAAS, "it was the increasing disconnection between consumers and producers of food in the latter half of the century that gave credence to concerns about the merits of new industrial products and a changing agricultural system."

Past debates over what is "pure" and "natural" can shed light on modern controversies over adulteration and modification of foods as well, said Cohen, who is an environmental historian. The modern controversies over genetically modified crops and chemical toxins in the food chain have served only to deepen some of the underlying moral questions about the proper way for humans to intervene in nature, he said.

Cohen spoke at the latest in a series of seminars at AAAS on contemporary issues in science, technology and policy. The series is organized by the Chemical Heritage Foundation's Center for Contemporary History and Policy and the AAAS Archives.

By the 1880s, the list of common adulterants in food had grown and was being compiled by the Commission of Internal Revenue. Some of the presumed adulterants seem harmless enough by today's standards. Chicory in coffee is now sometimes considered a taste benefit. Removal of cream from milk, then considered adulteration, is now standard practice.

But adulteration became a matter of public and scientific debate, in part because of the rising demand for regulatory standards and statutes (eventually to culminate in the passage of the Food and Drug Act in 1906) as well as a sense of uneasiness about the growing geographic distance between the producer and consumer of foods. Cohen said a kind of truth-in-labeling ethos arose, with adulteration seen as much a cultural problem as an agricultural one.

The most ardent foes of food adulteration were especially aroused by what they called artificial foods such as oleomargarine and glucose. The foes considered them "creations by man imitating and selling as wares from nature's bounty," as one historian put it.

Adulteration remains an issue in modern times as well, Cohen said, citing the controversy last year over use in China of the industrial chemical melamine as a protein substitute in infant formula. Even more relevant today, he said, is the debate over the introduction of chemicals (such as endocrine disrupters like bisphenol A or BPA) into food-related products and the development of genetically modified crops.

While such modern debates "are of a different order than dirt in sugar or fatty acids in margarine," he said, they have conceptual roots in the earlier controversies. Some of the same questions apply: what substances or processes are being added to the food chain? What is the potential for harm? Should there be legislation to ban or regulate them?

The pursuit of scientific answers to such questions inevitably requires us to address underlying assumptions about what is "natural," Cohen argues, as well as the proper human role in nature. A study of adulteration is not just concerned with public health and consumer protection, he said, but with the ethically acceptable ways to make and sell food—what historian E.P. Thompson called the moral economy.

During his postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian, Cohen is studying the moral economy of food production since the late 19th century. He's been looking into food packaging and advertisements, product descriptions, trade catalogs, cookbooks, and landscape images from the Progressive Era, a period of reform which lasted from the 1890s to the 1920s. It was a time when "purity" was a watchword as anti-adulteration advocates sought to place boundaries on what they saw as an increasingly industrial process for producing food. Bureaucratic measures for quantification and standardization arose as substitutes for the trust and familiarity of community-based sales and services, according to Cohen.

The anti-adulteration advocates, he has written, "worked at the gray area where some human intervention into the agricultural process was acceptable—someone has to milk the cows and sow the seeds, for example—while they disputed the degree and kind of human action in nature. When it is deemed improper, it is called adulterated; when it is proper, it is called natural."

There were questions about the right way to work the land, the right way to process food, the proper way to distribute it, and the morally upright way to buy and sell it. The illustrations of the day captured some of the growing concerns: farmers battling a giant three-headed monster named "Fraud" with its heads labeled: glucose, cotton-seed-oil lard, and oleomargarine; an unscrupulous farmer using rainwater to dilute his milk supply while a boarder from the city notes that it is "nearly double what it was before the rain commenced;" a grocer cheating a customer at his store by short-weighting bags of fertilizer.

As concerns about adulteration grew, scientists and chemical analysts started to emerge as the arbiters of what is right and what is not. British chemist Arthur Hill Hassall promoted the new era of microscopy and gained attention for his studies of microorganisms in the London water supply. In the early 1850s, he also began to study food adulteration. Such scientists were to become, as Cohen put it, the "border patrol" between pure and adulterated products.

An 1880s article in a scientific journal offered a microscopic comparison of "butter from pure milk" and "store oleomargarine." In the Meadville "Butterine" case, state-sanctioned chemists were brought in to mediate the dispute and determined that the allegedly fake butter was real butter, largely because of its volatile fatty acid content..

Today, in the post-industrial age, science still is asked to settle disputes over the purity and safety of foods, from salmonella-tainted peanuts to contaminated meat to melamine-laced infant formula. But scientific research also has given rise to new, more sophisticated challenges involving genetically modified organisms and new classes of chemical compounds in foods and food-related products such as plastic containers.

Cohen said settling modern agro-food disputes, as in the 19th century, ultimately will rely on more than scientific analysis alone.

"Just as actors in 19th century debates questioned what should be defined as improper ingredients, politicians sought to legislate the bounds of proper production, and scientists built new modes of analyses to address the perceived problems, so too do similar structures of public concern and scientific activity today seek solutions to perceived challenges to environmental practice," he concludes. "These issues are not new; they are part of a deeper historical trajectory, especially as understood from their moral basis. They remain irreducibly scientific, moral, and environmental. We should treat them as such."