03 January 2017

Newfoundland and Nutrition in the 1940s #nlpoli #cdnpoli

Scholarly papers seldom get news media attention.

When a paper combines a well-known, emotionally charged issue – aboriginal residential schools – with intimations of racism and unethical medical experiments on unwitting human subjects, it’s hard not to get noticed.

Ian Mosby's paper published in 2013 deserves attention for many reasons, but one of the areas not likely to get noticed by most readers is one that would be familiar to many in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

And it's also a major problem with Moseby's historical spin.

Mosby starts with a long, but provocative title:  “Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952.”

In the words of the abstract from the paper, it describes nutritional surveys and experiments conducted in some parts of northern Canada in the 1940s and 1950s. These were, the abstract tells us, an “unexamined episode of exploitation and neglect by the Canadian government.”  If you don’t want to read the whole article, you can find plenty of media coverage most of which keys on this idea that the federal government conducted hideous experiments on Indigenous people. 

There are some problems with the paper and reporting on it.  Some reporting actually contains elements from the paper that contradict one another.  For example, the paper contends the research was an example of exploitation and neglect, and that the researchers view “Aboriginal bodies as ‘experimental materials’”.[Page 148]

At the same time, the researchers Mosby discusses noted in 1942 that they suspected that many of the failings attributed to native people such as laziness may actually be caused by poor nutrition.  Thatw as something potentially beyond the control of the individuals themselves.  This hardly seems like the attitude of a racist  - as Mosby would have you believe they were - but that's one of things about the paper that leaves one a little uneasy about it.

The Newfoundland and Labrador Connection

The Newfoundland and Labrador connection in Mosby's paper is actually a pretty clear example of how the author torques information to fit his conclusion as opposed to presenting the information straightforwardly.

To set the table, a Telegram story by Steve Bartlett on the Mosby paper noted a reference to this province:
At St. Mary’s school, on the other hand, the high incidence of riboflavin deficiency led to the introduction of “Newfoundland Flour Mix” – a product that could not be
legally sold outside of Newfoundland under Canada’s laws against food adulteration because it contained added thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and bonemeal. [Page 162]
Bartlett also posted something on his Telly blog (since disappeared) about the flour as well.  The flour turned up in a paper about an experiment in which some children received bread made with the fortified flour:
It was titled "Development of Anemia on Newfoundland Enriched Flour." 
Although scientifically unproven that the flour caused anemia levels to rise, Pett noted "the fact remains that no beneficial effect was observed from the iron in enriched flour."
He suggested more research was required, but admitted "such studies are often omitted or are confined to certain animal experiments rather than to humans." 
Mosby argues the anemia "seems to have simply highlighted one of the main barriers to the kinds of human experiments being advocated by Pett - when confronted with the possible risks, few would consciously choose to allow themselves or their children to take part in such a study."
The Flour

Mosby plays on the idea that the flour didn't conform to Health Canada regulations because it was "adulterated".

But the adulteration in this case restored or added nutritional value to the processed white flour. It wasn't poisoned.  It didn't include anything harmful so the term adulteration has to be understood in a proper context.

And in the end, it's why the flour had added nutritional value that's important to understand that what Mosby claims and what happened are not the same thing.

Nutrition in rural Newfoundland and Labrador was a constant issue, especially in some of the more remote communities.  Some of the earliest scientific studies of nutrition in the country identified diseases such as beri-beri, which were not common at all in North America.

The Commission Government wanted to tackle the issue of public health so in 1943, the Commission Government required that all flour sold in Newfoundland contain added thiamine (2 mg per pound), riboflavin (1.2 mg), niacin(16 mg) and iron (13 mg). Starting in 1947, the Commission required that flour contain to provide about 500 mg of calcium per pound.

An international group of medical experts surveyed nutrition in Newfoundland in 1944 at the request of the Commission Government. This was a baseline survey to establish conditions before people got the fortified flour. As it turned out, the researchers actually finished there work just as the new flour hit store shelves.

The team examined 868 men, women, and children in St. John’s and other communities on the island as part of the baseline work.  Public health nurses assisted the team in St. John’s and in the other communities either by having volunteers ready or by helping to spread the word shortly after the team arrived in a community.

In St. John’s and St. Joseph’s, the local public health nurse had the volunteers assembled at a school when the team arrived.  In other places,
within a few minutes of our arrival at an outport the public health nurse, the ranger, school teacher, priest or minister, or all, would arrive to volunteer their services. After we had explained the purpose of our visit, we requested that they help by getting everyone possible to the school for examination. The success of this method of obtaining subjects is evidenced by the fact that in half day visits to Terrenceville, Bay L'Argent and Harbour Mille, with populations of 300, 298 and 383 respectively,* we examined 33, 51 and 22% of the populations. At the outports, as well as in St. John's, the subjects consisted as a rule of family groups with few adult working males.
The team conducted physical examinations and took blood and urine samples for later analysis.  They also took photographs of some of the physical condition of some of the volunteers. They published the results of their survey  - including some of the photographs - in the March 1945 issue of  Canadian Medical Association Journal.  Most of the same team repeated the survey in 1948, with the results published in the April 1949 CMAJ. 

The flour was a simple change in diet that did improve public health.  The international team that visited Newfoundland included Canadians and those Canadians were also involved in the work Moseby wrote about.  That's the connection.  They used the Newfoundland flour because they had evidence it worked at improving nutrition in isolated communities where a varied diet was hard to come by. 

And really, if you want to accuse the Canadian government of conducting unethical experiments - and then torquing that with the fact Indigenous people were involved -  Mosby and anyone else making that argument really would have to look at the same thing in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

That's where the racist argument about "adulterated" Newfoundland flour doesn't hold up.  The public health measures in Newfoundland and Labrador involved *everyone*.


Massive re-write (July 2020) to make the argument and finish the post off properly.  This post was originally drafted in August 2013.  While the immediacy of the issue has gone away,  the background is still useful, relevant, and interesting.