Heinz has a chance to reconnect with its founder’s push for purity


Bloomberg News

When U.S. stock trading recently, H.J. Heinz Co. was no longer listed on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index. Another iconic U.S. company, General Motors Co., will take its place.

Although Heinz has been a corporation since 1905, it was largely controlled by the founding family until 1987, when Tony O’Reilly became the first outsider to be named chairman. In February, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and Jorge Paulo Lemann’s 3G Capital Inc. said they would buy the company for $23 billion. Back in private hands, the company should carry forward the founder’s vision of both profit and service to society.

Beginning in 1880, new technologies introduced large-scale manufacturing and started to transform what Americans ate. This transition to foods made outside of the home sometimes resulted in adulteration of the type described in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. At the same time, the discovery of the toxic effects of various chemicals reported by Harvey Wiley’s “poison squad” studies heightened fears that there was something fundamentally wrong with the food supply.

Heinz, however, developed as a large industrial food processor by building consumer trust based on the belief of its founder, Henry Heinz, that crafting unadulterated foods was a moral obligation.

Born to German parents in 1844, Heinz started out by selling bottled horseradish out of the basement of his family’s home in Sharpsburg, Pa. His business quickly outgrew the family farm and he began larger-scale commercial production with L.C. Noble in 1869. By 1872, the company occupied a large factory on Pittsburgh’s Northside. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was one of the largest U.S. food processors.

Before World War I, canned foods were still a novelty, as well as a potential health hazard because of inadequate sterilization. Heinz emphasized purity in his products, at his factory and among his employees. He carefully selected the men and women he hired to sell and serve his goods in order to convey the message that Heinz products “were the best that money could buy.”

Slogans such as “57 good things” to eat and “pure food” were designed to reassure women that Heinz’s food wouldn’t cause illness. As the academic Miles Orvell suggests, the rise of large corporations where strangers manufactured products for the masses intensified the public’s resolve to separate the real from the fake in their food, and to distinguish the pure from the poison.

Heinz products weren’t cheap adulterated concoctions: They were made with fresh fruit and vegetables, combined with pure sugar, salt or vinegar. Customer satisfaction was guaranteed in every item.

To ensure that its baked beans, ketchup and other products met internally defined standards, the company grew its own vegetables. In 1900, Heinz owned more than 16,000 acres of land, where it oversaw its cultivation. On its farms, Heinz even specified the particular varieties of tomatoes and onions that managers planted. Once harvested, these crops were partially processed in branch factories close to the fields, reducing the spoilage caused by transporting them almost 700 miles to Pittsburgh from the Midwest.

This ensured that vegetables were processed as close to their peak flavor as possible. Workers at the branch factory carefully sorted tomatoes and removed spoiled ones to help ensure the quality of the product. Heinz controlled the quality of its foods by specifying farming practices such as plant variety, planting time, weeding methods and harvest time.

According to an internal publication about ketchup: “Perfect tomatoes for the purpose cannot be satisfactorily obtained on the open market, and therefore H.J. Heinz Company supervises the cultivation of its own tomatoes from the very selection of the seed and the preparation of the soil.”

Henry Heinz also controlled the purity of his products by managing its employees. Attempting to prevent contamination of products by workers, he required them to change into clean uniforms before beginning work — sanitary white for men and blue and white striped dresses with white aprons for women. The company also provided showers in the locker rooms so workers could bathe regularly, not a common practice in the early 20th century.

Women who handled food received weekly treatments from the company manicurist. Dirty hands and nails could contaminate an entire batch of food. The modern sanitary plant that Heinz described in corporate and promotional articles from the 1890s through the 1920s emphasized the cleanliness of workers. The company also offered daily tours of the Pittsburgh factory, allowing consumers to judge for themselves.

Yet, no matter how effective it was at instilling quality in its products, the company still needed to convince consumers that the Heinz name was synonymous with purity. Tens of thousands of people were able to taste its products at food expositions, where demonstrations were performed by so-called pickle girls.

The personal interactions of Heinz’s traveling salesmen and pickle girls with customers and grocers contributed to America’s transition to industrialized food. By caring for products, talking about the virtues of Heinz pure foods and allowing the nation taste these items, the public grew to embrace aliments made in a factory, relegating the fear of poisoned canned foods to the distant past.

Gabriella M. Petrick, professor of nutrition and food studies and history at George Mason University, is the author of “Industrializing Taste: Food Processing and the Transformation of the American Diet, 1900-1965.”

© 2013, Bloomberg News

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