Peril on Your Food Shelf

By U.S. Congressman James J. Delaney

Summary: In 1906 the U.S. Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. Though the bill was expressly intended to keep harmful chemicals out of American mouths, it quickly became a loophole through which the drug and food manufacturing industries could introduce untested substances into homes across the country. In 1937 this laxity culminated in the Massengill Elixir Tragedy, in which 105 people died from drinking a “health tonic” containing diethylene glycol, a lethal industrial solvent commonly used in brake fluid today—this despite Massengill’s internal lab having “tested” the tonic for safety. The disaster forced Congress to revisit chemical additive regulations in 1938 in the form of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which tightened rules for drug testing but still left a wide berth for food additives, the number of which exploded in the 1940s. Finally, in 1950, amid growing public concern, Congress created the House Select Committee to Investigate the Use of Chemicals in Food Products. The chair of that committee was New York congressman James Delaney, who wrote the following disturbing article after heading a year of investigation into the matter. Basically, he tells readers, when it came to testing the long term effects of the thousands of chemicals being added to the nation’s food, there was “no law to compel” manufacturers to make such investigations. Moreover, he says, many chemicals known to be dangerous were ending up on the market nonetheless through continued loose regulation. Referring to the Massengill tragedy, he warns, “There is no legal way at this moment to prevent something like this happening again [but] in food!” To this day food additives in America are tested for safety not by the U.S. government but by the companies that manufacture them. And as the Messengill incident reminds us, safety is found all too easily by those who profit from its discovery. From American Magazine, 1951. Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research reprint 67.