- Cancer from Beef: DES, Federal Food Regulation, and Consumer Confidence
Alan Marcus’s Cancer from Beef illuminates a side of the checkered career of diethylstilbesterol (DES) that may be less familiar to medical historians. Roberta Apfel and Susan Fisher have shown how, after being introduced in the 1940s as a drug to prevent miscarriages, it was found to cause reproductive problems in the daughters of some who took it. The same compound became all the rage in the beef industry during the 1950s as a miraculous growth promoter for cattle, only to be shunned in the seventies by government, consumers, and cattlemen alike. While Marcus’s version of this tale gets beyond the muckraker’s narrative of outrageous harms followed by consumer outcry and governmental intervention, those with the least fondness for this old story beware! Tracing in the debates over DES what he sees as a major political transformation, Marcus cannot resist lacing even-handed analysis with partisan caricature.
Marcus begins in those halcyon mid-twentieth-century days when scientists worked in a “Progressive partnership” with government and industry (p. 5), each strove for consensus, and even consumers assumed that technological innovations like DES in cattle feed would bring good rather than harm. After Wise Burroughs, an agricultural scientist who worked at Marcus’s home institution of Iowa State, discovered how stilbesterol could boost cattle growth, he had little trouble in getting corporate and FDA backing to market the chemical as a feed additive. The first “cracks in the facade” opened in the early fifties when a few medical researchers suggested that DES residue in beef might pose a cancer [End Page 337] threat; though marginalized by their professional colleagues, they won the ear of Congressman James Delaney (D-N.Y.) and in 1958 catalyzed his amendment to the Food and Drug Act outlawing carcinogenic food additives. Over the next decade, the Progressive partnership crumbled and the troubling shape of today’s regulatory politics emerged. According to Marcus, “individualism” replaced consensus, the FDA began to treat industry as an adversary, and erstwhile partners turned to suspecting each other’s good faith. As consumer advocates joined the fray, science’s and scientists’ place in the debate shrank. Media-conscious posturing and emotional bids for support overwhelmed “rationalist” discussion. A new vituperative style of politics, not science, led to the early-seventies ban on DES by the FDA, Marcus maintains.
With this argument, Cancer from Beef moves the history of post-1960 consumerism beyond a focus on liberal heroics. Marcus notes how both sides shared a conservative assumption that existing political institutions could remedy their complaints, and how both came to see political activism as therapeutic rather than instrumental, an empowering end in itself rather than a means to other purposes. After all, few cattlemen even used DES at the time of the ban. By the late seventies, both consumer and industry advocates had secured a political place for themselves by modest concessions to their opponents. The new regulatory “synthesis” hinged on the “relativistic” tool of cost-benefit analysis and left science and scientists with only a small, inconsequential role.
Marcus has culled his story from an impressive range of specialty periodicals, and his search through industry and agricultural science archives has provided a novel depth and authenticity to the producers’ side of the story. Unfortunately, he proves less than fair with their opponents. Asserting that science could not provide convincing political answers one way or the other, he nevertheless presents the implications drawn from this science by DES manufacturers and cattlegrowers as more honest, level-headed, and “rational” than those of consumer advocates. Witness his account of Sowing the Wind: Pesticides, Meat and the Public Interest, by Nader’s Raider Harrison Wellford: “obviously hostile and biased,” it “employed innuendo and unsubstantiated rumor” (p. 92) and aimed to “tap emotions, not to inspire reasoned dialogue” (p. 93). Marcus devotes little attention to the scientific study of carcinogens, which lent considerable credibility to consumerist arguments and which lay in the mainstream of biomedical research...