In The 1850s, An Epidemic Caused By Milk Killed Nearly 8,000 Babies

When a mysterious, rampant disease began ending the lives of infants in New York City in the 1850s, there were a lot of theories about what was really happening. As it turned out, the cause was milk. The Swill Milk Scandal of 1858 was discovered by a journalist who investigated the loss of life and traced it back to tainted cow milk. Much as John Snow mapped out cholera in London during the same decade, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper revealed the horrors of milk production and how it was sickening people.

Swill milk was produced by swill cows - bovines fed the run-off, mash, and swill from nearby whiskey distilleries. The cows were kept in horrible conditions and ultimately produced milk full of runoff and bacteria. Sold cheap and marketed as pure, "swill milk" wasn't banned until almost a decade after the deadly events of the 1850s. However, the tragic scandal did create an awareness of food safety in the United States. 


  • In 1857, Over 8,000 Infants Perished From Drinking Swill Milk

    According to authorities, 8,000 infants perished from drinking swill milk in 1857. New York City Inspector David Reese wrote in 1857:

    Distilleries in or near large cities... an intolerable nuisance and curse... wherever they exist, their slops will furnish the cheapest food for cows, the milk from which is more pernicious and fatal to infant health and life than alcohol itself to adults... So long as distilleries are tolerated in cities, cow stables will be their appendages, and the milk, fraught with sickness and death, will still perpetuate mortality...

    Many lower and middle class families at the time didn't have a lot of choice when it came to giving their kids the milk because it was the only affordable option for them. It's estimated that 50 to 80% of the milk consumed in northeastern cities was swill milk.

  • Because There Were So Many Other Diseases In The City, It Took Time For People To Realize What Was Happening

    During the 19th century, infant mortality was on the rise in New York City. Diseases like cholera and typhoid were a part of everyday life, as was losing infants. When children began dying from drinking swill milk, there was little reason to believe that anything was different from the status quo. Most weren't even aware the incidents were happening because of the milk, as all of the other mortality causes seemed like valid explanations.

  • Swill Cows Produced Discolored Milk
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Swill Cows Produced Discolored Milk

    The milk from swill cows was thin and devoid of enough fat to be used to make butter. It often "had an unnatural, bluish tint," so sellers added flour, starch, or plaster of Paris to make it thick and appear white

    The cows' poor treatment and diet gave them an odd disease. Their lungs ulcerated, and their milk secretion increased with it. This led to the realization that "the impurities of the animal's body passed off with the milk." 


  • The Cows Were Forced To Eat Swill And Live In Their Own Filth

    The swill itself was made up of boiling liquid and discarded grain, which was off-putting to the cows until they became so hungry that they at the slop. They ate over 30 gallons of swill per day, producing more milk than their grass-fed counterparts but at a much lower quality. The swill held no nutritional value for the cows, causing their health to fail as well. 

    In the buildings set up by distilleries, the conditions for the cows were cramped and unclean. They lived in their own filth, covered in bugs, and in ill-health. Many of the cows became so weak from poor nutrition that their teeth or tails fell off, and they often had sores.