In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Sweet Solution, Sticky SituationMill Technology, Organized Labor, and the Midwestern Origins of High Fructose Corn Syrup1
  • Brian James Leech (bio)

In early 1965, three executives from the Clinton Corn Processing Company boarded a plane from Japan back to the United States. Unbeknownst to U.S. Customs, they were carrying corporate secrets. Each man had carefully placed two vials of an isomerase enzyme into their pockets before the flight. This enzyme, recently discovered by the Japanese Agency of Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), would radically change food production. Back in Clinton, Iowa, members of Clinton Corn's research department spent months experimenting with the enzyme, trying to use it to turn regular corn syrup into a much sweeter syrup. They struggled, initially, because the product they received from Japan remained far from commercial viability. The syrup they produced with the enzyme looked "wildly colored" at first—unacceptable in industrial food, where products need to be reliable and easy to use.2

Six months passed and the Clinton Corn Company almost pulled the plug. The sales department, in particular, was not behind the operation, but Research Director Bob Macallister, "had vision," as one of his co-workers put it. He did not want to give up. According to Bill Nelson, then in charge of the sugars and syrups research unit, the big breakthrough came in fermentation. Their improved process meant the production of more fructose out of the corn syrup. Then they tried more treatments for the syrup, including a carbon and a deionization treatment. The result was reliable, even colored, and sweet.3 The company named the resulting product Isomerase 30, but later versions of it have become known as high fructose corn syrup, a product that revolutionized the sweetener industry, altered Americans' diets, and initiated dramatic changes for Clinton's workforce.

The following article will explore the story of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), focusing on the role played by the Clinton Corn Processing Company, a wet milling company in a small city of thirty thousand known [End Page 93] as Clinton. The Clinton Corn Processing Company continued to sell itself as local and Midwestern, even as its increasingly global, competitive outlook emerged from the HFCS era, reshaping its relationship with the city of Clinton and the company's unionized workforce. Labor-management tensions grew in Clinton due to a variety of factors, including the growth of automation, the increasing mobility of capital, and unions' inability to negotiate around these issues, but HFCS also played a role in altering the goals and attitudes of both management and workers. Hence, it is important to tackle this tale of technology at the same time as Clinton's labor relations. Tensions in Clinton exploded into a massive strike, the decertification of the union, and the reduction of jobs in an increasingly contractor-dependent factory.

Clinton's story can tell historians more about the development of the industrial food system. Historians have explored how new technologies, like those found in commercial food packaging, and new industrial foods, like artificial colors, became accepted parts of the food system, not simply because of consumer choice, but because of dramatic developments behind the scenes.4 The tale of HFCS follows this same path. Technological developments combined with smart marketing, revised government policy, and changes in the international sugar market to make HFCS ubiquitous.

As the industrial food system expanded, the regional mattered less to increasingly national, if not global, companies. The new technology of HFCS led to more power for, and further consolidation of, the wet milling industry. Workers have unfortunately become the often-unrecognized losers in these tales of food tech. Even though food studies has exploded in popularity, as Janis Thiessen has argued, the labor history of food has rarely been its focus.5 Books like Bryant Simon's The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives have started to change this trend.6 This article hopes to continue that direction for food studies by intertwining industrial food's labor history with its history of technology.

A narrative about corn wet mills can also show us the connection between two important images of the Midwest: as America...