The Great Cranberry Scare Of 1959 : Planet Money Sixty years ago, a food scare nearly crushed the cranberry business. Cranberries have bounced back since then, but the industry is facing new threats.
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The Great Cranberry Scare Of 1959

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The Great Cranberry Scare Of 1959

The Great Cranberry Scare Of 1959

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It was early November 1959 when Arthur Flemming got some distressing news. He was the secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Eisenhower, and he had just learned that samples of cranberries collected in Oregon and Washington contained traces of an herbicide called amino triazole.

ROBERT COX: Amino triazole was known to cause thyroid cancer in rats.

VANEK SMITH: This is Robert Cox, author of the book "Massachusetts Cranberry Culture."

COX: Carcinogens had been banned for agricultural use the previous year, 1958. And so he said, we have a problem.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: Problem was Thanksgiving was less than three weeks away, and on top of turkey, millions of Americans would soon be eating cranberry sauce.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, the solid thing in the can, the can-shaped cranberry gel.

MA: I mean, that's how I know it.

VANEK SMITH: That's how I know it, too. So on November 9 almost exactly 60 years ago, Flemming issued a statement warning the public of the contamination and the potential cancer risk.

COX: And when reporters asked Flemming, well, would you recommend people not buy cranberries?, and he said something to the effect - if I was a mother and feeding a little child at home, I would pass on cranberry sauce this year. Don't buy this stuff if you have any questions about it.


MA: Cue nationwide freakout.

VANEK SMITH: Within hours, grocery stores around the country pulled cranberry products from their shelves. Sales were banned in Chicago and San Francisco, and later, the feds seized shipments of cranberry sauce from Wisconsin and Massachusetts.

MA: Everybody was talking about this. There was a band, Robert Williams and the Groovers, that even wrote a song to capture the moment.


ROBERT WILLIAMS AND THE GROOVERS: (Singing) Cranberry, cranberry blues...

MA: I mean, I know this is a song about a terrifying food panic, but also, it's kind of catchy.

VANEK SMITH: It's undeniably catchy.


ROBERT WILLIAMS AND THE GROOVERS: (Singing) I went to see (unintelligible). He was sick in bed. And don't eat a cranberry or you'll soon be dead.

MA: In the minds of millions of consumers, cranberries went from being the classic holiday condiment to cancer-causing contraband. This is THE INDICATOR FOR PLANET MONEY. I'm Adrian Ma, a reporter with WBUR in Boston.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. The cranberry scare of 1959 - it threatened to crush the $50 million cranberry business. Today on the show, how the business adapted and the new crisis facing cranberries today.


VANEK SMITH: As news about the contaminated cranberries swept the nation, the market for them basically ground to a halt.

JOHN DECAS: We had 40 trailer loads of cranberries cancelled within one hour after that announcement.

VANEK SMITH: John Decas is co-owner of Decas Cranberry Products in Carver, Mass. At the time of the cranberry scare, he was in his mid-20s and had just started working in the family business.

DECAS: My reaction at the beginning was, oh, my God. It's over, you know? This cannot be my career. It's not going to exist.

MA: John says the rest of that year, they did not sell a single berry, and it didn't help that the White House, for its Thanksgiving dinner, replaced cranberry sauce with applesauce.

DECAS: And that was another punch in the gut.

VANEK SMITH: Later, lab tests only found traces of amino triazole in about 1- or 2% of the fruit they inspected, and Congress would pay the growers about $8.5 million to compensate them for lost sales. Still, the damage was pretty much done. For the next few years, it was really hard to move cranberries.

DECAS: And now that you put cancer in the minds of the consumer, how long is it going to take to deal with that and to get back to normal?

MA: Part of what made the cranberry scare so hard on producers like John was the timing - just days before Thanksgiving. And back then, Thanksgiving was the cranberry industry.

DECAS: But in people's mind, cranberries are so associated with Thanksgiving that it just doesn't occur to them to eat out of that season.

MA: It's almost like trying to imagine the Christmas tree industry being like, how can we sell Christmas trees all year round?

DECAS: Yeah, it is. And you're going against the cultural default.

MA: The cranberry scare was a wakeup call for the industry. If it was going to survive another crisis, it needed to spread out its risk.

VANEK SMITH: In other words, the cranberry industry had to figure out how to get people to eat cranberries not just on Thanksgiving.

MA: But this is an incredibly hard sell. You know, cranberries, unlike almost any other fruit you can buy, are not sweet. They're incredibly tart.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. In fact, I've actually never had a plain cranberry. I've always had them in, like, juice or the, you know, Thanksgiving gel or whatever. But our sound engineer Isaac Rodriguez is from cranberry country, and he brought me some cranberries to try, so I'm going to try my first cranberry, see what the industry was up against. OK. I'm going to try it.

Oh. It's grassy. Isaac eats these, like, as a snack. He was sort of hoping that I would be converted to eating them for a snack, but - oh. There's a lot of - oh. It's very astringent.

MA: Like, it is so tart that it's almost like, you know, nature designed this fruit not to be eaten.

VANEK SMITH: This is not necessarily tailored to the American palate.

MA: Oh, no. And, you know, this was the challenge - right? - that they've got a fruit so tart that it's, like, almost inedible. But in the early 1960s, Ocean Spray had this idea. They thought, if we want people to consume more cranberries, we need to think beyond sauce. In an old documentary about cranberries called "Crimson Harvest," former Ocean Spray CEO Edward Gelsthorpe explains how the company started tinkering with one of its more niche products.


EDWARD GELSTHORPE: For some time, Ocean Spray had been selling a product called cranberry juice cocktail, but they had been selling it only in New England, and it had actually been formulated to meet the taste of cranberry growers. So we did the not-so-brilliant thing of putting more water and more sugar in it, and it then became a very palatable drink.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: What does it take to convince you you're missing out? Tomorrow, drink different. Drink Ocean Spray cranberry juice cocktail.

MA: The new formulation took off, quickly followed by juice blends like cran-apple. And before long, cranberries went from being a once-a-year fruit to something you could have in any season. Or, as the ad suggested, why not have it daily?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Cranberry juice cocktail for breakfast?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: I find it infinitely more stimulating than orange juice.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: That's a really great taste.

VANEK SMITH: And, of course, the industry did not just stop at juice. Over the years, it developed other cranberry products, including dried sweetened cranberries, the Craisins. They were big hit.

MA: And they also tried out a cranberry-based meat glaze called Dip and Bake (ph), which was not a big hit.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) And these days, you can find cranberry in all kinds of things - cereals and muffins and granolas and kombucha and even beer. There is cranberry beer.

MA: And so cranberries are now a global commodity. Last year, the U.S. exported almost half a billion dollars' worth of cranberry products, and U.S. farmers produced almost 9 million barrels. That's about seven times the size it was during the cranberry scare.

VANEK SMITH: And Adrian, you could say that much like a ripe berry floating to the surface of a flooded cranberry bog, after the scare of 1959, the cranberry industry came out on top.

MA: Well, that is until last summer.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The White House is planning to release the list of products from China that will...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: President Trump has approved tariffs for around 50...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Fifty billion dollars' worth of goods from China will...

VANEK SMITH: Trade war.

MA: Trade war - what else?


MA: The trade war with China, which was the biggest buyer of U.S. cranberries last year...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Chinese).

MA: As part of its retaliation, China imposed a 25% tariff on dried cranberries, and soon, sales to China fell by nearly half. On top of that, cranberry growers are now facing a massive surplus. For years, the fruit's popularity drove increased production in the U.S., Canada and Chile, and now there is a global glut of cranberries.

VANEK SMITH: So the industry is taking a page from the cranberry crisis playbook back from 1959. Companies are doubling down and trying to find a new hit product - the next cranberry juice cocktail or the next dried cranberry.

MA: Yeah. In fact, this year, Ocean Spray opens a new research and development lab here in Boston tasked with churning out new concoctions. Like, cranberry-infused tea tonic, anyone? Or how about a cranberry oat milk elixir?

VANEK SMITH: Croat (ph) milk?

MA: Croat milk, cran (ph), cron (ph)...

VANEK SMITH: Cranoat (ph) milk?

MA: Yes.

VANEK SMITH: Crilk (ph)?

MA: I don't know. Maybe these products will catch on over time.

VANEK SMITH: Maybe they won't. Maybe they won't catch on over time.

This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Leena Sanzgiri. Our intern is Nadia Lewis. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


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