America's history of tainted consumer goods

Critics of Chinese products shouldn't be so quick to judge.

If future historians ask which developing economy was the bigger counterfeiter of consumer products – China or the United States – it won't be easy to decide. Product adulteration is neither a foreign monopoly nor a new issue.

Current scandals might lead people to believe that food and product safety regulations were the natural evolution of business and good government. But it took consumer outrage to bring needed changes in America in the early 20th century.

A century ago, US consumers feared domestic products. They distrusted everything from candy to meat to medicine. Newspapers broke stories daily revealing that even reputable department stores sold flatware with less silver content than advertised and walnut furniture made of gum wood. Buyers had to be wary or they would be cheated or, worse, poisoned.

Product adulteration was already a venerable tradition in America by then. During the Civil War, Union soldiers' shoddy uniforms fell to pieces and their shoes disintegrated. They paraded barefoot, and recruits sometimes had to use flour sacks to hide their bare backsides.

Why was long underwear red? Because red dye wouldn't take well to cotton. So the bright red color was proof that long johns were genuine wool.

By the time Upton Sinclair published his exposé of the meat industry, "The Jungle," in 1906, the adulteration of meat was old news. During the 1898 Spanish-American war, consumers became sensitized to the issue of "embalmed beef" when a general went public about the impurity of Army meat rations. The defense that the beef was no different from that sold to the public only increased the alarm. Although the charges were never proved that spoiled meats were doctored to make them appear fresh, a skeptical public demanded more government watchdogs.

Any food could be other than what it seemed. Blackberry brandy, a remedy popular with invalids, rarely contained even a trace of blackberries, but plenty of coal-tar dye. Candy, too, was colored with harmful dyes and tainted with ingredients such as paraffin and shellac. Milk, meanwhile, was preserved with formaldehyde.

Still, Americans prefer to look abroad for culprits. Asians have always been an easy target. When Chinese restaurants emerged in the 1890s, rumors spread that they served cat and rat meat. British tea growers proclaimed to the US market that their teas were 100 percent pure, but that Chinese teas contained foreign matter. Today, it is hard to credit how stigmatized the "Made in Japan" label once was.

Food adulteration and product counterfeiting has nothing to do with nationality, ethnicity, or even supposed backwardness. Economic development actually facilitates adulteration. Although it is as old as the history of trade, in its modern manifestations it is often the stepchild of science.

Scientific development breeds sophisticated trickery via new preservatives, dyes, and fillers. The conditions that promote adulteration are clear: a rapidly expanding economy and lax government controls, combined with bargain-hungry consumers driving a market for cheap goods. It can happen anywhere.

Jan Whitaker is a consumer historian and author of "Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class."

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