In the beginning of November 1959, Arthur Flemming, the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, made an announcement that cranberries produced in Washington and Oregon in 1958 and 1959 were possibly contaminated by a chemical weed killer called aminotriazole. This chemical, when tested, caused thyroid cancer in rats.
This brought into play the recently-developed Delaney Clause, which was included in the Food Additives Amendment of 1958, regulating pesticides in food products. The clause read that "no additive shall be deemed to be safe if it is found to induce cancer when ingested by man or laboratory animals..." As a result, Flemming and the FDA urged people to stop buying cranberries, at least for a while.
Right before Thanksgiving, this greatly affected holiday meal plans. On this date, as residents across the country determined whether or not they wanted to chance eating the holiday berry, North Dakotans in Langdon showed their decision with their dollars – or lack thereof.
The Cavalier County Republican reported on the slow sales from each of three food markets in town. The National Food Store had removed all of its cranberries and cranberry products. The Piggly Wiggly still had cranberries to sell, but since the announcement, had only sold a grand total of four cans. The Red Owl store manager, Leo Kuhn, also reported that sales were "definitely down from what they should be at this time of year."
Dealing with pure food regulations was nothing new in the United States and especially in North Dakota, where people like Edwin Ladd (deceased for twenty-five years by this time) crusaded for the state's pure-food laws. He was the chief chemist of the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station, and he went on to become a US Senator.
Bad experiences like the cranberry scare of ’59 can have a silver lining. While it led to a drop in sales, it also improved public knowledge of an important issue and promoted changes in the use of chemicals on cranberries. Today, you can buy your fresh and canned cranberries and similar products for your holiday meals with some peace.
Dakota Datebook written by Sarah Walker
Cavalier County Republican, November 19, 1959, p1, 8