9 Chapter 9: THE USA – 1910’s – Nitrite on trial

Experimental Farm Ottawa, from The Progress report, 1912.
Experimental Farm Ottawa, from The Progress report, 1912.


The drama of the sale of German nitrites played itself off in the USA and particularly in Chicago.  This directly led to the creation of Prague Salt.

We begin our US story by looking at public and government views on nitrite.  During the 1910’s, the USA wrestled with the question whether nitrites in food constitute adulteration and it’s consideration created its own epic drama.

Vastly opposing views were held in relation to preservatives and colourants generally.  Prof. Julius Hortvet, a chemist at the Minnesota Dairy and Food Commission said in an address delivered on 16 July 1907, at the Eleventh Annual Convention of the Association of State and National Food and Dairy Departments, in Jamestown, “Some state laws go so far as to inflict fine and imprisonment for making an article appear better than it really is.”

He presented the opposing view when he said that he believes that “if we must have legislation in regards to this, it would be wiser to reserve it and punish the man who did not make his food product as attractive as possible.”  (American Food Journal; 1907)

In his speech, he made the following prophetic comment about saltpeter which in years to come would become one of the dominant arguments for the use of nitrite in foods.  He said that “we know..that certain substances, as salt and saltpeter, have caused death from the effects of large doses.”  He then draws a brilliant comparison between these products and alcohol when he said that ” alcohol is classed as a poison.” His point was that what is good for alcohol, which is a poison if consumed in high concentrations and large volumes, should be good for saltpeter (i.e. limit the amount of nitrate and nitrite in foods instead of banning it altogether, as is the case with alcohol).  “In short,” he said, “the whole question sometimes is relative.” (American Food Journal; 1907)

He was “not contending that certain articles commonly used in…food may or may not under certain circumstances act as a poison.”  He was “simply defending… against two possible evils:  first, the addition to…food of any substances that will tend to augment the possibilities of harm arising from our daily diet.”

His second point sounds like one directed to the use of nitrite and its medicinal use when he said that “he is secondly defending against,” the addition to … foods of substances having therapeutic or even toxic properties by persons unqualified to prescribe such substances.” (American Food Journal; 1907)  He is possibly tripped up by a lack of scientific understanding about nitrites at the time, but his cautionary note is commended.

In the 1910’s, the US Department of Agriculture had the right to promulgate “standards of purity for food products and to determine what are regarded as adulteration therein.”  (American Food Journal; 1907 vol 2 no 2, 15 Feb 1907, p43 )  Whether these standards would become law was an open question at this stage.  If there was a dispute about a substance, it was heard by a special organ of the US Department of Agriculture, the Referee Board of Consulting Scientific Experts, created in 1908.

The battleground about the use of nitrites itself was not the meat industry.  It seems that the meat industry considered and possibly used it in secret.  The battle played out in its use as a bleaching agent in flour.  The controversy came to a head in a landmark court case in 1910.

The Millers were infuriated because the attorney general opted for a jury trial instead of .  referring the matter to the Referee Board of Consulting Scientific Experts.  (Chicago Daily Tribune ; 7 July 1910; Page 15)  I can only suspect that he was himself against the use of nitrites in food and probably did not want scientists to decide.

A court case was brought by the US Federal Government against the Mill and Elevator Company of Lexington, Nebraska.  The charge was that they adulterated and misbranded flour and sold it to a grocer in Castle, Missouri.

The government seized as evidence 625 sacks of flour from the grocer.  The court case lasted five weeks.  The case was brought by the government under the pure food and drug act of 1906.  (Chicago Daily Tribune ; 7 July 1910; Page 15)  This is an act “for preventing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic therein, and for other purposes.”  (www.fda.gov)

The government contended that “poisonous nitrites are produced in the flour by bleaching.” They did not share the view of Prof. Julius Hortvet that we looked at earlier who said that these matters are relative to the amount of the substance used since alcohol is also a poison if used in the right quantity.  The Federal Government said that “any amount of poison introduced into food is an adulteration.”  (Chicago Daily Tribune; 7 July 1910; Page 15)

The issue was that as much as 80% of the flour produced in the USA during that time was bleached with a nitrogen peroxide process.  Flour naturally has a creamy tint.  The cheaper the grade, the more creamy it is.  In ages past, flour was bleached simply by age.  The chemical bleaching process with nitrogen peroxide instantly changes the yellowest flour whiter than the highest grade.  The process results in residue traces of nitrous and nitric acid being left in the flour which produce nitrites and nitrates.  (Chicago Daily Tribune ; 7 July 1910; Page 15)

The defense argued that “nitrates (and nitrites) were present in such small quantities that no man could eat enough bread at one time to be poisoned by them.”  (Chicago Daily Tribune; 7 Jul 1910; Page 15)  The government contended that “if this view were upheld by the courts all foodstuffs manufactured could introduce quantities of poison into their products, infinitely small in each case, but devastating in their cumulative effect.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, 7 Jul 1910, Thu, Page 15)  (The arguments will be analysed and an overview will be given of how the international food industry answered it in the years following 1910 in a separate article)

This was a case of huge importance to the industry as can be seen from the list of people called upon by the defense.  Pierce Butler of St Paul acted as special attorney for the defense.  (Chicago Daily Tribune; 7 Jul 1910;  Page 15) Whether he still had the position in 1910 when the case was heard must be verified, but he was a lawyer of such stature that in 1908, Butler was elected President of the Minnesota State Bar Association.  From 1923 to 1939 he served as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.  (saintpaulhistorical.com)

Apart from Butler, “a large staff of distinguished lawyers fought for the company who’s flour was seized, and for the millers of Nebraska, the millers of Kansas, and the company who makes the bleaching machines.  Among the experts who testified were all the toxicologists who testified in a previous landmark case (the Swope case), professors of chemistry and medicine from twenty universities, doctors, bakers, millers, and housewives.” (Chicago Daily Tribune; 7 Jul 1910; Thu, Page 15)

After seven hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict in favour of the government upholding the charge that the bleached flour was both adulterated and misbranded.  (Chicago Daily Tribune; 7 Jul 1910; Thu, Page 15)

It is fair to conclude that by 1910, nothing was more sensitive in food production than the presence of nitrites and the use of sodium nitrite in food was highly controversial.


The Naming of Prague Salt Copyright © 2016 by Eben van Tonder. All Rights Reserved.


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