The New York Milk Scandal That Killed Thousands | Serving Up Science

Feb 28, 2019

On this week's episode of Serving Up Science, science writer Sheril Kirshenbaum and WKAR's Karel Vega discuss the repercussions of swill milk during the 1850's.


When you take a look at the production of fresh food items and how they end up in grocery stores, it really is a modern marvel. 

We’re not saying the FDA is perfect, but before its introduction, some pretty dangerous practices were taking place in the food industry. 

Take a simple staple like milk, which most people take for granted. There was a time when milk could get you really sick. The lack of proper food safety enforcement led to the deaths of a lot of people, especially children. 

And first a word of warning - this story does contain accounts of animal cruelty which may be disturbing to some listeners.

An editorial cartoon in Harper's Weekly depicts the deadly consequences of swill milk. ((August 17, 1878 / HathiTrust))
Credit HathiTrust / Smithsonian.com

Let’s begin in New York. The year was 1858. New Yorkers were drinking milk, but that milk didn’t exactly do anyone’s body good.According to the New York Times, thousands of children became sick. 

The “milk” itself looked just fine. It was marketed as wholesome and pure. But you can’t judge a book by its cover … or a glass of milk by its color. 

Remember, this was over 160 years ago when the government wasn’t regulating our food supply sufficiently. 

The infamous “swill milk” scandal persisted in the Big Apple for several decades during the 19thcentury. Several factors contributed to the problem, but the most notable among them was greed.

New York City was a busy, bustling place - it still is after all - but before refrigeration, it was hard to keep enough of a milk supply to meet growing demand. 

Curiously, in 1853 about 90,000 quarts of cow’s milk supposedly arrived in the city every day, yet somehow 120,000 quarts went out for delivery. That’s some fuzzy math. What accounted for the extra 30,000 quarts?

New York dairymen were adding water to dilute their milk so they could sell more, followed by agents like flour to thicken the product. There are even accounts of cow brains added to milk in order to give the “milk” a more natural appearance and creamy top. 

Then there was swill milk. 

Cows were tied up in crowded stables next to city distilleries and fed the hot alcoholic mash left from making whiskey. As you can imagine, this wasn’t a great diet for these animals and they were kept in pretty horrible conditions with open sores, and sometimes they were standing in their own waste. 

The cows would get very sick from an alcoholic diet. This was clear animal abuse. Their teeth rotted and it was reported that some of their tails fell off. Even though their udders might be covered in ulcers, they would be milked anyway, producing a dirty, bluish substance which didn’t look like milk. 

But that didn’t stop dairymen from bringing this so-called “swill milk” to market. 

While it didn’t look exactly like it should, they came up with a quick fix. According to The New York Times, plaster of Paris and molasses was added to change the color, and starch and eggs were used to thicken it. They called their product Orange County Milk.The New York Timeswould later attribute the deaths of thousands of children to swill milk. 

And it wasn’t by accident. For decades, the men responsible knew their milk was unsafe, but that didn’t stop them from selling it for a profit. 

In 1842, Robert Hartley, a temperance crusader, warned that city milk could be catastrophically tainted. And over the next decade, newspapers continued writing about the problems with distillery dairies, calling for them to be closed. 

In 1858, Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine that once dominated New York City politics, sent Alderman Michael Tuomey to West 16thStreet to look into a suspicious swill milk dairy. 

But Tuomey wasn’t exactly a character from True Detective. He drank a glass or two of whiskey with the dairyman and concluded swill milk was as good for children as ordinary milk. He added that anyone who refused to drink it simply had a “prejudice.” 

Swill milk wasn’t just dangerous, it was deadly. But New York dairymen wanted to get rich and they weren’t getting penalized for their cruel and evil practices. 

This story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending given thousands of children died, but thankfully, food safety regulations eventually required New York to clean up its milk. New food laws and enforcement helped improve the situation, with a giant boost from pasteurization methods, refrigeration, and the passage of the Food and Drug Act in 1906 - a half century after the worst of swill milk years. 

Which is a good opportunity to remind listeners that it’s not safe to drink raw milk, despite being a popular trend. Raw milk means milk from cows, sheep, and goats — or any other animal — that has not been pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria and can carry dangerous microorganisms like Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria and others that cause foodborne illness. It is what we typically call “food poisoning.” 

So, despite its rise in popularity, “raw milk” can harbor dangerous microorganisms that can pose serious health risks.We’ve talked about food safety in previous episodes, and while no system is perfect, national laws and practices have certainly come a long way.

Serving Up Science is produced in association with Food@MSU.