Seafood Scandal in Society Hill

North side of Dock Street, between Front and Water Streets, November 5, 1955. (PhillyHistory.org)

North side, Dock Street between Front and Water Streets, November 5, 1955. (PhillyHistory.org)

All Don and Peggy Kleinschmidt wanted was a nice family dinner. The last thing they wanted was for their three-year-old son, Dale, to become the poster child in a frenzied food-tainting scandal.

On Tuesday March 24, 1959 Peggy went shopping at her local supermarket in Haddon Heights, New Jersey and arrived home with two pounds of flounder fillets. As her four children played nearby, Peggy unwrapped the fish, slathered it with breadcrumbs, salt, and pepper and set about cooking. Dale, the Kleinschmidt’s three-year-old, loved fish couldn’t wait. As soon as Peggy fried the first fillet, she gave it to him, with a glass of milk. Dale scarfed down his meal and ran off to visit with his grandmother, who lived nearby. The rest of the Kleinschmidt family then sat down to eat.

Almost immediately, Dale’s grandmother sensed something wrong. At first, she attributed it to Dale having missed his usual nap. But within a few minutes he was crying and vomiting. Then he started turning blue. The Kleinschmidts called their family physician, who arrived quickly. By the time the doctor arrived, according to an account of the incident, Dale Kleinschmidt was “lying on a chair with no detectable blood pressure, eyes rolled back, and absent reflexes.” By the time he arrived at Cooper Hospital in Camden, Dale was dead. And other family members were also suffering symptoms of food poisoning.

What could it be? “The fish didn’t taste quite right,” observed Don Kleinschmidt. But for more than 24 hours, no one knew for sure.

(PhillyHistory.org)

Northwest corner of Dock and Water Streets, November 5, 1955. (PhillyHistory.org)

The local police ordered the flounder removed from the supermarket fish counter. And as word spread, and reports came in, local, state and national health officials and the Food and Drug Administration investigated. The next morning, the Inquirer reported several women becoming ill after eating fillet of flounder “in a well-known restaurant in Philadelphia“. The city health department “issued a warning on a teletype service” that reached “newspapers, radio and televisions stations.” By 5 PM on Wednesday March 25th, every last radio announcer in the Philadelphia area cautioned: “All flounder purchased yesterday and today is poisonous.” Don’t eat it; Destroy it.

Throughout the city and suburbs, flounder-lovers crowded emergency rooms requesting antidotes and pleading to have their stomachs pumped. And the alarm spread up and down the East Coast. “Poisoned Fish Hits East; Baby Dies,” read one headline. “Boy’s Death Sparks Poison Food Search,” declared another.

Quickly, the investigation pointed to a single source, Dan DiOrio’s Universal Seafood Company, a fish processor at Water and Dock Streets on the Philadelphia waterfront. And investigators identified the additive that killed Dale Kleinschmidt: sodium nitrite.

But just as the warnings were going out, DiOrio himself stood in front of news cameras denying the fish industry “had or would use sodium nitrite.” And even after his firm was identified as the likely processor, DiOrio held firm to his denial: “sodium nitrate is not used in his plant operations.” DiOrio felt “just as sorry as anyone” about the loss of life.

At first, Food and Drug Administration District Director Robert C. Stanfill found nothing to contradict DiOrio’s repeated denials. But upon further investigation, Stanfill’s team found “evidence of nitrites … on the concrete floor, and on the cutting table.” Digging deeper, they traced several transactions. The day before Dale Kleinschmidt’s death, a nearby chemical supply house made “an early-morning delivery of 400-pounds of sodium nitrite” to DiOrio’s facility. He “personally authorized the order and personally accompanied” the clearly labeled drum “from the truck to the filleting room” where 1,800 pounds of fish that would kill one and sicken at least 40 others were treated.

Three-year old Dale Kleinschmidt died after consuming an estimated 460 milligrams of sodium nitrite, more than 2.5 times the amount that would  “induce hypotension, pallor, sweating, nausea, dizziness, and loss of consciousness” in an adult.

Dan DiOrio pleaded nolo contendre. Sentenced to a month in jail, and served 16 days and remained on probation for three years.

Burdened by scandal and lawsuits Universal Seafood soon closed.

 [Additional sources consulted: Thomas L. Singley, III,  M.D,  “Secondary Methemoglobinemia Due to the Adulteration of Fish with Sodium Nitrite,” Annals of Internal Medicine, Vol. 57, No. 5, November 1962; Obituary of Margaret Kleinschmidt, 1931-2008.]

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