The Great Cranberry Crash Of 1959

Originally published on November 21, 2019 7:59 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This time next week, many of us will sit down to a plate of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and cranberries. Sixty years ago, cranberries were missing from the Thanksgiving table. There was a scare over potentially cancerous cranberries. All sales stopped. The cranberry business nearly died. Stacey Vanek Smith and Adrian Ma from our daily economics podcast The Indicator From Planet Money have this report on the great cranberry crash of 1959.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: 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: The 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: So on November 9 almost exactly 60 years ago, Flemming issued a statement, warning the public of the contamination and the potential cancer risk. Within hours, grocery stores around the country pulled cranberry products from their shelves. 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 canceled 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.

MA: John says the rest of that year, they did not sell a single berry.

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.

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.

VANEK SMITH: The cranberry industry had to figure out how to get people to eat cranberries not just on Thanksgiving.

MA: 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. And so cranberries went from being a once-a-year fruit to something you could have in any season. 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.

VANEK SMITH: After the scare of 1959, the cranberry industry came out on top.

MA: That is until last summer.

VANEK SMITH: Trade war.

MA: Trade war - what else? 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: Adrian Ma.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

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