Printer Friendly

The Politics of Purity: Harvey Washington Wiley and the Origins of Federal Food Policy.

The Politics of Purity: Harvey Washington Wiley and the Origins of Federal Food Policy. By Clayton Coppin and Jack High. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. 219 pp. Bibliography, index, and notes. $49.50. ISBN 0472109847.

Coppin and High are free market economists who believe that government often creates more problems than it solves when intervening in business affairs. In this respect, the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906 is a good historical target since numerous authors over the years have portrayed the pioneering regulatory statute as a benefit to business, creating greater consumer confidence and ultimately higher sales. The authors do not address this complex historiographical dispute directly: they do so obliquely by challenging Oscar Anderson's 1958 biography of Wiley, Health of a Nation, and his overall portrait of Wiley as a principled public servant. This is akin to writing a critical biography of Bill Gates, but ignoring both the computer revolution he helped launch as well as the recent actions of the U.S. Department of Justice. Coppin and High ignore the revolution in food and drug regulation and consumer protection inspired by Wiley as well as the history of the thorny scientific issues the Food and Drug Adminis tration continues to confront as part of his legacy.

"The real issues at stake in regulation," according to Coppin and High, were "market share, corporate profit, and bureaucratic growth. These issues, however, were hid behind a cloak of rhetoric about the public interest" (p. 34). They characterize their position as "significantly different" from that of Anderson and other public interest advocates. Given this economic orientation, the book's shortcomings become painfully obvious. To noneconomists, issues and interests other than those of the business community were and continue to be equally "real." What is in foods, what is left out of drugs, and what is on the label of a product offered for purchase: for many people, these remain equally "real" issues. The basic problem for free market economists such as Coppin and High is to explain the outcome of the legislation in terms that recognize as legitimate the expressed interests of consumers. If consumers had not supported the law, most businesses would not have supported it and it would not have become law. T he fact that it did become law is, was, and remains difficult for them to explain without accepting the criticisms of consumers as well as some business elements.

It is not so much what Coppin and High say about Wiley that is problematic in this book--although there is some of that as well--but rather, what is left out: wider perspectives, balance, an appreciation of complex issues, and documentation. Wiley was no saint. Elsewhere, I have argued that Wiley himself was chiefly responsible for some of the principal faults in the original "Wiley Act." But if Coppin and High wish to persuade scholars that their reappraisal of Wiley as an imperfect leader, prone to prejudice, and unduly influenced by business interests is accurate, then they must do a better job of documenting their sources. One footnote per paragraph is not adequate support for such a sweeping reinterpretation of Wiley's actions and alliances. The authors may have looked at hundreds of boxes of records and they may well be the first economists (but not historians) to do so, but their citations are limited, many references to primary documents are too cryptic for verification, and they make questionable ch oices in their citations of secondary literature.

Coppin and High concentrate so much on specific commodities and the interest groups promoting them that they ignore the larger legal and regulatory issues underlying them. So what if Wiley was suspicious of all chemical food additives? So are many consumers. Today, food manufacturers cannot put chemical preservatives in foods without pre-market governmental approval. The larger issue was not a free market issue but rather a public health issue that Coppin and High have ignored. If all manufacturers can freely use any given chemical additive in any quantity, there is no way to protect the public health from harmfully high doses. Would anyone want that policy applied to present pesticides as well as past preservatives? The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the recent scare over Alar indicate otherwise. Coppin and High insinuate that Wiley's concerns about Coca-Cola were groundless. Coca-Cola the beverage may have been vindicated (after the company eliminated cocaine and reduced caffeine content), but the issues of drugs in foods, synthetic foods, and informative ingredient labeling are still with us.

To my mind, Coppin and High's most puzzling discussion, however, is that of Wiley's views on whiskey. Early on, they criticize Wiley as a poor "bureaucratic entrepreneur" for not transforming the Bureau of Chemistry into a sugar industry research unit along the lines of the German model, which would have easily secured its then uneasy future in the Department of Agriculture. His failure to do so is deemed a "political misjudgement" that hampered the growth of the Bureau of Chemistry for years (p. 38). Coppin and High acknowledge that the President of the United States commended Wiley for his excellent explanation of the chemistry behind the whiskey issue. Wiley's view may not have prevailed in the end, but there were many people who agreed with his interpretation of the science behind the decision. Is this not, rather, an early example of other issues overriding scientific ones in public policy making? And as for Wiley as "bureaucratic entrepreneur," Wiley ultimately succeeded in a way valued by economists ( but not perhaps taxpayers) precisely because he did not seize sugar and transform his analytical chemists into industrial chemists, but rather applied his Division's chemical expertise to existing consumer products. Whiskey is not an example of Wiley's shortcomings, but rather symbolic of his scientific (as opposed to his regulatory) success. Whiskey is a chemical mixture. Drugs are chemical mixtures. Wiley may have founded his bureau on food problems but it was dedicated to the proposition that chemistry can contribute to an understanding of thorny regulatory issues involving both foods and drugs.

In general, Coppin and High confine their criticisms of Wiley to the major issues on which he took controversial stands. However, they repeatedly hint at and then retreat from the proposition that Wiley had significant conflicts of interest. A case of whiskey, accepted by a connoisseur, which Wiley was, is one thing. Far more serious, however, is Coppin and High's allegations that Wiley personally profited from the establishment of the New York Sugar Laboratory. They suggest that he himself handed over his own Sugar Laboratory Chief from the Bureau of Chemistry to head the new venture and received a $10,000 consulting fee for his efforts (pp. 85-87). This would be an extraordinary finding if it were documented. As they do elsewhere, however, Coppin and High footnote the facts presented but offer nothing to substantiate their significant reinterpretation of that fact.

As for Wiley's recommendation of Charles A. Browne to head the New York Sugar Laboratory, Browne was an eminent agricultural chemist with an international reputation for his work on sugar. Wiley hired him as Chief of the Bureau of Chemistry's Sugar Laboratory in 1905. Around that same time, Wiley also hired Mary E. Pennington, the first female scientist in the Bureau, away from industry to head another laboratory in the Bureau of Chemistry. Such was the nature of the competition for scientific talent at the turn of the century. If Wiley had not recommended Browne for the New York Sugar Laboratory position two years later, someone else most certainly would have done so. In 1924, after sixteen years at the New York Sugar Laboratory, C.A. Browne returned to Washington to serve as one of Wiley's successors as Chief of the Bureau of Chemistry, where Browne's tenure was once again characterized by a high level of research and technical expertise.

Coppin and High do make some historical contributions in this book. I like their discussion of the whiskey issue in the context of gaining support from the Women's Christian Temperance Union for the 1906 Act, for example. They offer some interesting observations about Wiley's early years in the Bureau of Chemistry and refrain, as others have not, from portraying him as preordained to succeed. Fundamentally, however, aside from their negative portrayal of Wiley, they do not substantially change the outline of the story of the enactment of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act. The best account of the Wiley era remains that of James Harvey Young, whose 1989 book, Pure Food, reflects the wisdom gleaned from a career studying food and drug issues, and to whom Coppin and High's book, surprisingly enough, is dedicated.

Suzanne White Junod, Ph.D., is a historian with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Business History Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Review
Author:Junod, Suzanne White
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Previous Article:The Farmer's Benevolent Trust: Law and Agricultural Cooperation in Industrial America, 1865-1945.
Next Article:F. K. Weyerhaeuser: A Biography.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters