40 Years Ago This Month: Americans Panicked Over Cranberry Safety Scientists Reflect on the Anniversary of the First "Carcinogen" Panic of the Century

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On the 40th anniversary of the great "cranberry scare" of l959, scientists at the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) urged Americans to "eat, drink, and be wary" of those who attempt to frighten us about trace levels of synthetic chemicals in foods.

In November l959, just days before Thanksgiving, the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare set off a national food panic when he announced that domestic cranberry products were "contaminated" with a weed-killer called aminotriazole. Aminotriazole is a chemical that in huge doses¬equivalent to eating 15,000 pounds of cranberries every day for several years¬was found to cause cancer in laboratory rodents. As a result of the federal warning, schools discarded cranberry products, restaurants changed their menus, supermarkets suspended sales¬and millions of Americans had Thanksgiving dinner without cranberry sauce.

"The cranberry scare of l959 set the stage for decades of unfounded anxiety about trace levels of agricultural chemicals and additives in food," noted Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan, President of ACSH. "Many other food scares based solely on high-dose animal studies would follow, involving nitrite in bacon, the artificial sweetener saccharin, and most notably, the chemical Alar, which was used in regulating the growth of apples."

An important catalyst in the 1959 cranberry scare was the Delaney Clause, a 1958 amendment to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that banned from food any artificial substance that could be shown to cause cancer in lab animals.

"What the Delaney Clause fails to recognize," explained Dr. Whelan "is that lab animals are not little humans."

Human physiology is significantly different from the physiologies of mice, rats, and other species. While animal studies play an important role in identifying potentially toxic or cancer-causing substances (carcinogens), their results¬often found at extraordinarily high doses¬cannot be directly applied to humans.

"The Delaney Clause also overlooks the fact that many natural substances safely consumed by Americans every day are also high-dose animal carcinogens," added Dr. Whelan.

"In the past 40 years¬having endured nearly a dozen similar food scares¬Americans have become more sophisticated and skeptical about claims of 'carcinogens' in food," observed Dr. Gilbert Ross, ACSH's medical director. "Indeed, the fact that there has not been another major food scare since the fiasco over Alar-treated apples in l989 suggests¬and this is good news¬that chemophobia is on the wane."

The 40th anniversary of the great "cranberry scare" is a reminder to all Americans: Don't get bogged down by the hypothetical hazards cultivated by environmental hysterics.
For more information see the ACSH report, "Facts Versus Fears: A Review of the Greatest Unfounded Health Scares of Recent Times."