The organic food industry got an unexpected boost from the Democratic National Convention this past July. The surprise came from how the candidate’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, was introduced to the assembled delegates by her son Chris: “My mother in my heart and mind is a force—spiritual, organic and loving; smart, funny and wise.”
This peculiar choice of words led one New York Times writer to ruminate on the term’s connotations. “In a political age that hungers for cultural code words—from NASCAR dads to latte liberals—‘organic’ may take on a life of its own. The word clearly connects with an expanding slice of American consumer culture. First used in the 1940s to describe pesticide-free farming, organic is now a marketing tool for everything from soap to nuts.”
While we don’t buy the notion that organic products are any more wholesome than others, the marketing potential of the term is clear. But if the reporter had gone back just a few more decades, he would have discovered some interesting history concerning a less appreciated aspect of organic food—profiteering. Ironically, this episode involves the source of Teresa Kerry’s fortune, the H. J. Heinz Company, and its best known product, ketchup.
The “pure food” movement began in the early 1900s, as technological advances in such areas as canning and preservatives revolutionized food processing. Consumers benefited from lower prices and increased choice, but at the same time new methods of food adulteration arose. While the health hazards of such adulteration were frequently exaggerated, there was some cause for concern. A movement arose to eliminate preservatives from processed foods. One of its earliest battles was over the use of benzoate as a preservative in ketchup.
Consumer activists claimed that benzoate was unhealthy. They were joined by certain ketchup producers, including Heinz. These companies used better ingredients and production methods than other producers. On the other hand, their ketchup was a lot more expensive—a bottle of Heinz reportedly cost more than twice as much as regular ketchup. A benzoate ban would have shut down their low-priced competitors. According to Andrew F. Smith, the author of Pure Ketchup: A History of America’s National Condiment (2001), Mr. Heinz’s position consisted of “idealism and noble purpose compounded with self-interest.” It was “good business” to “curb those operators who were giving the industry a bad name—and undercutting his prices.” [Emphasis added.]
The anti-benzoate forces lost; a good thing too, since their claims about the dangers of the substance have turned out to be wrong. In fact, their proposed ban might well have backfired, because it could have increased the incidence of ptomaine poisoning from spoiled tomatoes. But the Heinz Company went on to become a major food processor, and its success, of course, led to the fortune that Teresa Heinz Kerry inherited. There’s no connection between that success and the benzoate fight, but the episode illustrates how little has changed over 100 years in regulatory battles over food.
Did Chris Heinz know about the Heinz Company’s push for “organic” ketchup a century ago, when he used that term to introduce his mother to the Democratic National Convention? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s an enjoyable coincidence. It seems that ketchup needn’t just be a vegetable; it can also be a parable.