The Development of Irradiated Foods

The Development of Irradiated Foods by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation

            Most everyone is familiar with the great discovery of Viosterol and subsequent irradiation of foods to add the protective Vitamin D factor, but few are aware of the work and background that had to be laid to make this discovery and its utilization possible

The untiring efforts of Dr. Harry Steenbock and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation made it possible for the world to procure the important Vitamin D in concentrated form, and to apply it to a multitude of foods, formerly deficient in this factor.

As early as 1920 Dr. Steenbork found it possible to concentrate Vitamin A. At this time he called it to the attention of members of the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin, asking that the University protect his discovery against improper exploitation. After long delays in action others in this field of study applied for patent protection and the opportunity was lost.

Dr. Steenbock and his co-workers continued their work on the vitamins and after years of painstaking efforts, they finally discovered that Vitamin D could be introduced into foods through treatment with ultra-violet rays, and that certain substances widely distributed in foods had the power of absorbing these rays that are responsible for the absorption and retention of lime salts in the body.

It is realized that the importance of this discovery is emphasized by the fact that from sixty to eight per cent of the children in this country, especially those in cities, are afflicted with, or have a predisposition to some form of rickets. This is due to faulty assimilation of line substances and can be prevented by the protective foods that have been treated with ultra-violet rays and corrected by the use of medicinal preparations so treated.

Ergosterol, a substance found widely distributed in plants and present in the skin of humans and animals, can be made active by ultra-violet treatment so that one gram of it is equivalent in ricket-preventing capacity to more than 20 tons of cod liver oil.

As can be seen, the possibilities of this discovery were far reaching. For this reason it was decided that patent protection was necessary to control its use and obviate unscrupulous exploitation. The irradiation of oleomargarine might easily produce a cheap butter substitute for butter than would be of health value. But the state of Wisconsin is one of the great dairy producers and here a great industry might be threatened if the discovery were not protected.

Irradiation of foods not controlled could easily lead to such misuse that more harm than good would be accomplished.

Dr. Steenbock again appealed to the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin for aid in protecting his discovery. This body did not have the organization through which to work so that his appeal was in vain.

After considering the matter thoroughly he sought the aid of friends and members of the University Alumni. The dairy interests were alarmed and appealed for protection, for themselves and for the public.

Dean C. S. Slichter of the graduate school worked with Dr. Steenbock and together they evolved a general working proposition. After consulting business men, bankers and friends among the alumni, a conference of a group of alumni was held at Madison, Wisconsin, and a full discussion of the plans took place.

It was at this meeting that the formation of the Wisconsin Research Foundation was made. This was organized November 14, 1925, under the laws of the State of Wisconsin as a corporation not for profit.

The purposes as set forth in the charter are:

To promote, encourage and aid scientific investigations and research at the University and to assist in providing the means and machinery by which the scientific discoveries and inventions of the staff may be developed and patented and the public and commercial uses thereof determined; and by which such utilization may be made of such discoveries and inventions and patent rights as may tend to stimulate and promote and provide funds for further scientific investigation and research within said Universtiy.

The alumni voluntarily subscribed funds to launch this project which linked the educational and business world. The organization took particular points to divorce itself from all politics and influences.

The management was placed in the hands of a self perpetuating board of six members of the alumni to serve as trustees.

Dr. Steenbock insisted that all revenue be turned over to the association, but the board of trustees persuaded him to accept 15% of the net proceeds because they felt that if the Foundation was to function successfully, and obtain the confidence of the scientists and research workers of the University, the discoverer must have some financial recognition.

Alumni Foundation, a New Means of Patent Control

The formation of the Winconsin Alumni Research Foundation blazed the trail for other university organizations to control the patent rights for original research discoveries in their institutions.

In order to finance the promotion of their discovery it was necessary to secure what contracts were available.

“The initial contracts were made in connection with the irradiation of the breakfast foods. The first contract was made with the Quaker Oats Company and is exclusive. Then followed contracts with five large and responsible pharmaceutical companies in the United States for placing upon the market the medicinal preparation known as Viosterol which is irradiated Ergosterol dissolved in a neutral oil. These pharmaceutical houses are: Abbott Laboratories, Mead Johnson & Company, Parke-David & Company, E. R. Squibb & Sons and Winthrop Chemical Company. The name Viosterol was adopted with the approval of the American Medical Association. A fortified cod liver oil preparation was also authorized. From the very beginning these two products were accepted by the medical profession. Price levels were set by the Foundation so that a reasonable profit for handling could not be exceeded. In the last few years Viosterol has been incorporated in many pharmaceutical products so that it is now available in liquid, capsule and tablet form. Under the Foundation’s scheme of control, as a result of a large mass of clinical experience, the potency of Viosterol has been increased, and on several occasions the price schedule has been revised downward.

“The earlier licenses of the Steenbock process have been followed by licenses to makers of other food products. A license was granted to the General products. A license was granted to the General Baking Co. for the use of the process in bread. In this case the license was coupled with the stipulation that there would be no increase in the price bread treated. This company adds Vitamin D to its BOND bread, and has conducted an extensive educational campaign costing millions of dollars. The Fleischmann Company, which has been absorbed by Standard Brands, has a license for the irradiation of yeast. Cocomalt also contains Vitamin D by this process. Quaker Oats irradiate their Quaker Farina, Muffets and Rolled Oats.

“The field rapidly widened, and before it was realized the Foundation found itself a big business. As knowledge of the value of the discovery spread, applications for licenses poured in. There was need for rare discrimination and genuine caution. Income could have been multiplied several times over has the Foundation been purely commercial and not mindful of the public good. Others than the manufacturers of medicines and of food products properly adaptable to irradiation saw in the Steenbock parents a new sales appeal. The products properly adaptable to irradiation saw in the Steenbock patents a new sales appeal. The products for which applications were made have ranged all the way from soft drinks of every kind to candy, chewing gum, cosmetics, and even oyster shells.

“The foundation has taken out patents in Canada and European countries. It operates through a general agent in Europe who has licensed pharmaceutical companies and food companies of various descriptions. Its income in 1934 from foreign licenses was in excess of $85,000.

“Many problems of control and questions in regard to the supervision of advertising publicity arose. The Foundation had its hands full in protecting the public from false claims and misrepresentation. Any infringements were reported, and suits were brought to protect the licensees and the public. A real organization was needed; so in 1930 Dr. H. L. Russel, for years Dean of the Agricultural School in Madison, was induced to resign and give his whole time as director of the Foundation.

Carefully measured amounts of the Irradiated products are fed to the laboratory animals after the standard rachitic condition has been produced in them. The curative benefits are later determined by the “Line Test”.


Test animals are housed in clean cages under standard conditions so that feeding may be carried out with scientific accuracy. In 1934 more than 15,000 laboratory animals were utilized in making Vitamin D determinations of irradiated products.




“In order to protect the public an extensive laboratory for biological assays was equipped in Madison to check the Vitamin D potency of products subjected to the irradiation process. Legal, advertising and sales departments have been formed. In other words, the Foundation is now operating along the lines of an efficient business corporation, and has on its staff approximately forty people. Offices are maintained in New York, Chicago and Madison.

Royalties Have been Kept to a Minimum

“The question of what royalties should be charged has been at times a difficult problem. Inasmuch as the entire income of the Foundation is dedicated to research in the natural sciences at the University of Wisconsin, the trustees were interested in seeing that income grows as rapidly as possible. However, other considerations involving public policy are equally important. Royalties must not be such that they appreciably increase the cost of the product to the consumer. With this in view the trustees carefully considered the whole royalty proposition from a broad, humanitarian standpoint, keeping in mind that here was a discovery of vast importance in the promotion better public health and that therefore its benefits must be provided to the masses at the lowest possible cost to them. This policy, as previously pointed out, was followed in the contracts for the use of the process in bread, by stipulating specifically that, there should be no increase in price, and has been followed in the fixing of maximum increases in the price of products where the use of the process brought about an increased cost which had to be provided for in the sales price of the article.

“The contracts of the Foundation usually provide for a definite license fee, reasonable in amount, and a percentage royalty based on production with an annual minimum guarantee. Exclusive contracts have not been the rule except in certain limited fields, and then only when the Foundation was satisfied that the license was in position to cover the field nationally. The policy has always been to encourage the widest possible use of the Steenbock process in the interest of public health.

“A real problem is constantly before the Trustees in the handling of advertising matter. The public knows comparatively little about the subject of vitamins, and particularly in regard to the important dietary value of Vitamin D.