Readings — From the May 2014 issue

Ag Gag

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From approximately 150 interviews with current and former employees of the Food and Drug Administration collected as part of an oral-history project begun in the 1970s. Recordings of the interviews are kept in the National Library of Medicine; transcripts are posted on the FDA’s website.

I recall the first inspection drug-training conference in the late Forties. We decided to put on a skit concerning estrogens and built the back end of a mare, which was balanced to lean against the wall. Joe Milunas began his inspection of the production of estrogen by lifting the tail, whereupon a stream of golden fluid poured into a bucket, which Joe sampled with one finger, tasting it. We had him rigged with two balloons under his bosom and a carbon dioxide sparklet gas release, which was supposed to fill the balloons. Unfortunately, this was built in such a rush that we were unable to test it. When Joe broke the sparklet, the cold expanding gas going through tubes running over his bare belly gave him quite a shock, and the balloons didn’t fill up equally. One of them got real big, and one looked like a fried egg.

In 1957, they had an organoleptic school for determining decomposition of frozen eggs. We took good eggs and subjected them to time/temperature abuse. We would measure out portions of bad eggs that were black rots or green rots or molds. They had all types of bad eggs. Then we would mix a portion of bad egg in with the good egg. They were then frozen. You would drill a hole in the middle and smell the odor given off by the eggs heated with the drill. I was designated as the number-one smeller in that class and therefore endearingly called myself “One Smart Egg Smeller.”

One of our inspectors had stopped to eat lunch in a place called Rockville, Indiana. This lady who was in the restaurant had apparently read an article about seeds, and any color of seed meant the seed was treated. She mentioned that she had seen a truckload of colored seed, so he found out they were using this treated seed to feed beef cattle that were going to market. He got some samples, which were found to be positive for dieldrin, a pesticide. They had about 130-plus head of cattle up there, and they were all contaminated. The company worked out that the way to get this dieldrin level down was to feed them charcoal. They hired a veterinarian, and he would come out to check the animals. The veterinarian would run them in a chute, give them a local anesthetic in their spine, slit their hip, take some fat out, and place the fat sample in metal sample tubes. I remember we had these gold jumpsuits. This was funny. One of the animals, while I was standing there with my clipboard, kicked up some of the muck on the ground. Some of the feces flew up in my face and all on my jumpsuit, so I had a black spot right on my gold jumpsuit. It was that charcoal feces.

We had an incident where there was a question of food contamination on one of the cargo ships. It was a sugar container. Apparently stowaways were inside, and it got so hot in the storage below deck, one had died in the sugar. We had to decide what problems resulted from this dead person or corpse being in the sugar. I think it was determined the sugar could be reconditioned and eventually used for consumption.

The dairy work we did in those days involved the inspection of cream used in butter-making. Cream that had been saved over a period of a week, where the can was probably on the back porch of the farm, often had remarkable things fall into it. One of my fellow inspectors found one with a whole leather jacket in there.

It was a brand-new cookie-and-cracker bakery, Carr Biscuit. The floors along the lines were close to knee-deep in crackers that had fallen off the belts. This was in August, I believe, in St. Louis. It was one of the most horrible infestations you can imagine. I remember one day at lunchtime they had a big glob of dough out on a table, and the whistle blew for lunch. The workers got out their brown-bag lunches, and they used the dough for a sofa. It was nice and soft. At the end of lunch, you could see their butt prints in this dough.

One of our inspectors picked up some shell eggs in the market in Kansas City, and they came up with chlordane residues. The producer’s name was Harry Glassburner, kind of a stocky little guy, and he came out of the house wearing Bermuda shorts and cowboy boots. I’ll never forget that picture of him in Bermuda shorts and cowboy boots. He had 50,000 laying hens in his chicken house. They dug a big trench and gassed all those birds, and they took them out there and buried them. But they dug the trench a little bit too shallow, and this was the middle of the summer, and the birds started fermenting. It made like a little volcano. The gas from the decomposing birds kind of erupted to the surface of the soil, and I guess it was a sight.

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