When it comes to breaking bad news to people, timing is everything. For instance, if at all possible, you'd prefer that your girlfriend not tell you she's leaving while she's banging your best friend. In a similar vein, it may have not been the best timing ever when on November 9, 1959, just 15 days before Thanksgiving, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Arthur Fleming announced that a shipment of cranberries from Oregon was found to be contaminated with aminotriazole, a weed killer that had been shown to cause thyroid cancer in rats.
As if making the announcement just weeks ahead of the one day of the year when some people do actually eat cranberries wasn't bad enough, Fleming leaned a little too heavily on the "Holy shit we're all going to die!" technique when it came to getting information to the public. Even though tests of cranberries from several other states showed no signs of contamination, when asked how a housewife could be sure the berries she buys are safe, Fleming replied "To be on the safe side, she doesn't buy. Also, he might as well have gone on to say, 'If you've eaten any cranberries in the last 24 hours, make your peace with the Lord.'
In a matter of days, grocery stores across the country were pulling products containing cranberries from their shelves.
Better safe than sorry, right? Well, there was something Fleming failed to mention. For a human to match the cancer causing aminotriazole dosage fed to the lab rats, they would have to consume 15,000 pounds of berries. Daily. For years. As these photos of a plate of cranberry sauce before and after a recent Thanksgiving celebration show, Americans don't eat nearly that amount.
Officials familiar with these minor details grew increasingly wary of the damage that Fleming's comments may have on the cranberry industry and began to distance themselves from the scare. After Presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy both ate cranberries at a campaign stop in Wisconsin, the nation slowly came to their collective senses. By Thanksgiving, cranberries were back on grocery store shelves and back to being universally ignored on Thanksgiving dinner tables nationwide.
In 1959, cranberries killed fewer people than ...
... were killed flying in a plane with Buddy Holly.