Bee Wilson: NYC once had its own milk scandal

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Bee Wilson is the author of “Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud From Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee.”]

THE milk was marketed as pure and wholesome, and it looked fine to the naked eye. How were the mothers to know they were poisoning their babies? They had paid good money for it on the open market. It would take thousands of sick children before lawmakers did anything to stop it.

China in 2008? No, New York City in 1858. Missing from the coverage of the current Chinese baby formula poisoning, in which more than 53,000 babies have been sickened and at least four have died, is how often it has happened before.

The disaster unfolding now in China — and spreading inevitably to its trading partners — is eerily similar to the “swill milk” scandal that rumbled on in New York for several decades of the 19th century.

In a city growing fast, but lacking refrigeration, it was hard to provide sufficient milk. Fresh milk was brought in from Westchester and Orange Counties, but not enough to meet demand. In 1853, it was found that 90,000 or so quarts of cow’s milk entered the city each day, but that number mysteriously increased to 120,000 quarts at the point of delivery.

Some of the increase was due to New York dairymen padding their milk with water, and then restoring its richness with flour — just like their latter-day Chinese counterparts, who increased the protein levels in watered-down milk by adding the noxious chemical melamine. But the greater part was swill milk, a filthy, bluish substance milked from cows tied up in crowded stables adjoining city distilleries and fed the hot alcoholic mash left from making whiskey. This too was doctored — with plaster of Paris to take away the blueness, starch and eggs to thicken it and molasses to give it the buttercup hue of honest Orange County milk. This newspaper attributed the deaths of up to 8,000 children a year to this vile fluid.

In China, journalists have known of the poison milk for months, but weren’t allowed to spread the news because of the Olympics. Even worse, it has been only four years since China’s last baby formula scandal, when fraudsters in Anhui Province manufactured fake formula from sugar and starch, killing at least 13 babies. In the case of swill milk, the New York dairymen had been informed for decades that their milk was unsafe....

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