The Swill Is Gone

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.

As early as 1842, a temperance crusader named Robert Hartley warned that city milk could be catastrophically tainted. Throughout the 1850s, newspapers published exposés of the distillery dairies and called for the city to close them. Some of the cows were so diseased from their alcoholic diet that their teeth rotted and their tails fell off. Their udders were frequently ulcerated, but they would be milked regardless.

Finally, in 1858, Tammany Hall sent Alderman Michael Tuomey to “investigate” a notorious swill milk dairy on West 16th Street. Tuomey sat down with the dairy owners and drank a glass or two of whiskey. He concluded that swill milk was just as good for children as ordinary milk, and anyone who refused to drink it simply had a “prejudice.”

Again, there are echoes with China. The Chinese government had exempted several of the nation’s biggest dairies from inspections, one of the reasons the scare was allowed to spread unchecked from baby formula to yogurt to the whole of the Chinese dairy industry and its exports. (The British candy maker Cadbury announced yesterday, for instance, that it had discovered melamine in some of its Chinese-made milk chocolates.) This isn’t just laissez-faire — it’s an approach to the food supply that is so deliberately hands off that it amounts to an invitation to swindling. Heads are rolling now, but too late for the sick babies.

The similarities between China today and New York 150 years ago shouldn’t come as a great surprise. Adulteration on such a scandalous scale occurs in societies with a toxic combination of characteristics: a fast-growing capitalist economy coupled with a government unable or unwilling to regulate the food supply. In such get-rich-quick societies, there is a huge temptation to tamper with food, particularly when margins are low. The rewards are instant, and it’s not always easy for consumers to detect the difference between the pure and the doctored — particularly with a substance like milk, which we have been taught to trust implicitly.

Such scandals are not bad luck. They are symptomatic of a deep failure of politics. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s hasty gestures — punishing the dairies, forcing the head of the food quality agency to resign — have done nothing to deal with the underlying regulatory vacuum.

In the end, New York milk was cleaned up. It took stronger food laws, better policing, the advent of pasteurization and the passage of the Food and Drug Act in 1906, 50 years after the worst of swill milk. Above all, it took decades, not months or years. China faces many more food scandals — to add to recent alarms like pesticide-laced dumplings and lard made from sewage — before it reaches the point where its citizens can routinely trust what they eat.

The American food supply is still flawed, as this year’s panic over salmonella in produce showed. But it’s worth remembering that it has been far worse. China’s present is America’s past.

Bee Wilson, the author of Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud From Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee.