Chief of the Bureau of Chemistry Carl L. Alsberg to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels
DEPARMENT OF AGRICULTURE,
BUREAU OF CHEMISTRY,
May 8, 1917.
I have received a number of complaints from business men concerning the methods of purchasing food supplies for the various Government Departments. I am not in a position to pass on the merits of these criticisms but I take the liberty of passing them on to you, without comment, as statements made to me for whatever they may be worth and for whatever consideration you may care to give them. Perhaps the best way of illustrating what these criticisms amount to is to take a definite example.
Some few weeks ago the Navy Department issued bids for some 250,000 cases of canned goods of different kinds. A good many of the articles required are not to be had at any reasonable figure owing to the existing shortage which I have, on several occasions, brought to your attention in connection with the tin can situation. The result was that proposals were made by a number of people who had, of course, to locate the goods and obtain options upon them. The result of that was to put up the price for canned goods throughout the country; I am informed from 15 to 25%. Then after the bids were in, nothing was heard from the Navy Department for about two weeks. I am informed that many of the people who had bought the goods did not feel justified in holding them and therefore disposed of them. One man, who represents one of the very largest concerns in this country dealing with foodstuffs, informs me that his firm, being patriotically disposed, located and actually purchased some 50,000 cases of canned goods of the desired grades and kinds. This required several days’ work of one of their best men and probably $100.00 for telephone calls, telegrams and travel. When the goods were actually purchased, this firm telegraphed the Navy Department offering the goods at cost to them. They held the goods for ten days and receiving no information from the Navy Department, they disposed of the goods. About two weeks after the sending of the first telegram, they were notified to deliver the goods. The Navy Department therefore has lost the advantage of this liberal offer to receive one-fifth of their total requirements at cost. Many of the goods were of a character that could not be located excepting by experts experienced in the business. This, however, is not the important point. The important point is that by advertising bids in the old-fashioned manner, the cost of canned goods was put up from 15 to 25%. This would not be so serious if the increase of price affected only the Navy Department but it affects every consumer in the country1. . . .
Source Note: TLS, DLC-MSS, Josephus Daniels Papers, Roll 98. Document is on Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Chemistry stationery. Alsberg was a medical doctor with an expertise in biochemistry. He became chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in 1912 and remained in the post until 1921. According to a biography on the Food and Drug Administration website, his tenure as director was characterized by “increasing the attention given to drug regulation, to research, and to an enforcement philosophy that relied more on education and persuasion than prosecution.” “Carl L. Alsberg, M.D.,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Accessed 5 May 2017, https://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/WhatWeDo/History/Leaders/Commissioners/ucm093764.htm,.
Footnote 1: As Alsberg suggests in this letter, food prices in the United States were “giddily levitating.” As a result, on 19 May 1917, President Woodrow Wilson created the Food Administration and named Herbert C. Hoover as its first director. Kennedy, Over Here: 116-20, quotation on p. 118. While this new agency and the War Industries Board wanted to take over all purchasing for the Navy, in the end, the Navy continued to do its own purchasing at prices fixed by “constitu[t]ed authorities.” Josephus Daniels, diary entry of 28 September 1917, DLC-MSS, Josephus Daniels Papers, Diary, Roll 1.