We tend to think of our 19th-century forefathers thriving on farm-fresh produce and pasture-raised livestock, happily unaffected by the deceptive food-manufacturing practices of today. In this we are wrong. Milk offers a stunning case in point. By mid-century, the standard, profit-maximizing recipe was a pint of lukewarm water for every quart of milk—after the cream had been skimmed off. To whiten the bluish liquid, dairymen added plaster of paris and chalk, or a dollop of molasses for a creamy gold. To replace the skimmed-off layer of cream, they might add a final flourish of pureed calf brains.Mmmm..calves brains.
More on this somewhat nauseating topic of just how bad commercial milk was in those days can be found in a much lengthier article in the Smithsonian magazine. Oddly, calves brains were probably the least of a consumer's reason to worry. But first, the brains:
But there were other factors besides risky strains of bacteria that made 19th century milk untrustworthy. The worst of these were the many tricks that dairymen used to increase their profits. Far too often, not only in Indiana but nationwide, dairy producers thinned milk with water (sometimes containing a little gelatin), and recolored the resulting bluish-gray liquid with dyes, chalk, or plaster dust.Gosh.
They also faked the look of rich cream by using a yellowish layer of pureed calf brains. As a historian of the Indiana health department wrote: “People could not be induced to eat brain sandwiches in [a] sufficient amount to use all the brains, and so a new market was devised.”
“Surprisingly enough,’’ he added, “it really did look like cream but it coagulated when poured into hot coffee.”
Anyway, the worse thing was the use of formaldehyde:
Finally, if the milk was threatening to sour, dairymen added formaldehyde, an embalming compound long used by funeral parlors, to stop the decomposition, also relying on its slightly sweet taste to improve the flavor. In the late 1890s, formaldehyde was so widely used by the dairy and meat-packing industries that outbreaks of illnesses related to the preservative were routinely described by newspapers as “embalmed meat” or “embalmed milk” scandals.
Indianapolis at the time offered a near-perfect case study in all the dangers of milk in America, one that was unfortunately linked to hundreds of deaths and highlighted not only Hurty’s point about sanitation but the often lethal risks of food and drink before federal safety regulations came into place in 1906.
In late 1900, Hurty’s health department published such a blistering analysis of locally produced milk that The Indianapolis News titled its resulting article “Worms and Moss in Milk.” The finding came from an analysis of a pint bottle handed over by a family alarmed by signs that their milk was “wriggling.” It turned out to be worms, which investigators found had been introduced when a local dairyman thinned the milk with ‘’stagnant water.”....
[a few paras about the horrible bacteriological state of milk at that time go here]
The heating of a liquid to 120 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit for about 20 minutes to kill pathogenic bacteria was first reported by the French microbiologist Louis Pasteur in the 1850s. But although the process would later be named pasteurization in his honor, Pasteur’s focus was actually on wine. It was more than 20 years later that the German chemist Franz von Soxhlet would propose the same treatment for milk. In 1899, the Harvard microbiologist Theobald Smith — known for his discovery of Salmonella — also argued for this, after showing that pasteurization could kill some of the most stubborn pathogens in milk, such as the bovine tubercle bacillus.
But pasteurization would not become standard procedure in the United States until the 1930s, and even American doctors resisted the idea. The year before Smith announced his discovery, the American Pediatric Society erroneously warned that feeding babies heated milk could lead them to develop scurvy.
Such attitudes encouraged the dairy industry to deal with milk’s bacterial problems simply by dumping formaldehyde into the mix. And although Hurty would later become a passionate advocate of pasteurization, at first he endorsed the idea of chemical preservatives.
In 1896, desperately concerned about diseases linked to pathogens in milk, he even endorsed formaldehyde as a good preservative. The recommended dose of two drops of formalin (a mix of 40 percent formaldehyde and 60 percent water) could preserve a pint of milk for several days. It was a tiny amount, Hurty said, and he thought it might make the product safer.
But the amounts were often far from tiny. Thanks to Hurty, Indiana passed the Pure Food Law in 1899 but the state provided no money for enforcement or testing. So dairymen began increasing the dose of formaldehyde, seeking to keep their product “fresh” for as long as possible. Chemical companies came up with new formaldehyde mixtures with innocuous names such as Iceline or Preservaline. (The latter was said to keep a pint of milk fresh for up to 10 days.) And as the dairy industry increased the amount of preservatives, the milk became more and more toxic.
In the summer of 1900, The Indianapolis News reported on the deaths of three infants in the city’s orphanage due to formaldehyde poisoning. A further investigation indicated that at least 30 children had died two years prior due to use of the preservative, and in 1901, Hurty himself referenced the deaths of more than 400 children due to a combination of formaldehyde, dirt, and bacteria in milk.
Following that outbreak, the state began prosecuting dairymen for using formaldehyde and, at least briefly, reduced the practice. But it wasn’t until Harvey Wiley and his allies helped secure the federal Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 that the compound was at last banned from the food supply.
It really was a different world back then.
And once again, you have to ask - how the hell do libertarians have the hide to argue that their philosophy works, in practice?