Ironed Out

By: Vanessa Burrows, Ph.D.

During the early part of the 20th century, the growing scientific knowledge that certain diseases were caused by vitamin and mineral deficiencies sparked public interest in products that touted these substances. But the public had little understanding of this emerging health care field and, as a result, was often easy prey for unscrupulous marketers who used phony claims that their products had therapeutic value.

Vanessa BurrowsOne such charlatan was a man named E. Virgil Neal, whose past schemes included palm-reading and hypnotism performed under the name Xenophon LaMotte Sage; a mail-order health and self-improvement program, which earned him a conviction for mail fraud; and a French cosmetics company that marketed false hair regenerators and bust enhancers.

Operating at the dawn of the modern advertising age, Neal employed a sophisticated and misleading marketing campaign to sell Nuxated Iron pills, which included iron and nux vomica, a derivative of the strychnine tree, which is highly toxic to humans and other animals. Beginning in 1917, Neal’s advertisements used celebrity endorsements that touted the product’s invigorating and strength-building qualities, promising to alleviate “that tired feeling.” However, the pills contained so little iron that their health impact was questionable, and so much strychnine that, in at least one case, they caused the fatal poisoning of a young boy.

Neal’s fraudulence was exposed by the American Medical Association and journalists in the early 1920s, but FDA was unable to prosecute him because the misbranding provisions of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act did not outlaw misleading promotional material of the type that Neal distributed. Neal’s product actually contained some iron, albeit negligible amounts, and only made therapeutic claims in promotional materials. It wasn’t until 1944, after the passage of the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, when FDA was able to take action against the product on new types of misbranding grounds, which forbid, among other things, misrepresenting the quantity of ingredients contained in the product.

Today, FDA continues to play a critical role in protecting consumers from fraudulent, adulterated, and misbranded products like Nuxated Iron.

We hope you enjoy your visit to the History Vault.

Vanessa Burrows, Ph.D., is an FDA Historian

How FDA ‘Triers’ and Food Sampling Have Prevented Tragedy

By: Suzanne Junod, Ph.D.

Suzanne Junod holding a grain trier

Suzanne Junod, Ph.D., holding two grain triers.

Throughout history, one of the most important tools used by FDA inspectors to protect the food supply is also one of the simplest – a trier – which allows an inspector to collect a representative sample of a product.

Triers vary in design, depending on the product being sampled. But this straightforward, efficient tool makes it possible for FDA inspectors to quickly gather samples to test for contamination and other signs of adulteration. For decades, triers have prevented potential tragedies involving grains, cheese, frozen eggs, olives, and many other products. During the 1950s, for instance, many consumers were unknowingly put at risk by the smallest of food products – the seeds used by many American farmers to grow wheat. The public health threat stemmed from the fact that some farmers used mercury-treated seeds to grow their wheat, and a number of these seeds found their way into the food supply. Thanks to the sharp eyes of FDA inspectors, this threat was removed.

We hope you enjoy your visit to the FDA History Vault.

Suzanne Junod, Ph.D., is an FDA Historian.

‘Fight BAC:’ FDA’s Little Green Monster Still Going Strong After 20 Years

By: John Swann, Ph.D.

Twenty years ago, FDA was invaded by a hideous creature that today is still one of the most unforgettable and endearing artifacts in the FDA History vault. The giant green character (who came to life thanks to FDA staffers who wore the large ventilated costume) known as BAC, short for Bacteria, was the centerpiece of an FDA public education campaign designed to put a fearsome face on foodborne bacteria, thereby alerting Americans to the dangers of food contamination and how to avoid it in their kitchens.

BAC, the giant green character

BAC, short for Bacteria, was the centerpiece of an FDA public education campaign designed to put a fearsome face on foodborne bacteria.

The “Fight BAC campaign” grew out of the public-private Partnership for Food Safety Education, and was one of the core strategies of a 1997 report to the President on Food Safety. It wasn’t the first time FDA had developed a public health education campaign. Previous efforts used entertainers, sports figures, and others to inform the public about a variety of public health issues. But the Fight BAC campaign was one of the most effective, and BAC’s message to “Keep Food Safe from Bacteria” continues to have staying power – it’s still going strong 20 years later in support of FDA’s mission to protect and promote the health of the American public.

John Swann, Ph.D., is an FDA Historian