The Poison Squad: A Reminder That Food Wasn’t Always Good, and That We Can Always Make Food Better

By Matt Paysour

“Try organic food… or as your grandparents called it, ‘Food,’” says a cheeky meme, designed to evoke the bucolic pastures and bountiful gardens of our ancestors. The good old days, indeed.

Deborah Blum begins her latest book, The Poison Squad, by squashing this notion of any “good old days” in early American food.

At the turn of the 20th century, American food was entirely unregulated, and as such, was overrun with fraud. Labels were still 60 years away, and nobody knew what was in their food. “Coffee” was made of ground beets, acorns, coconut husks, or charred wheat. “Honey” was dyed corn syrup. “Pepper” was often reported as nothing more than gray dust swept off of the floor. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that up to 90 percent of foods such as coffee, tea, spices, baking powders, and foods marketed to low-income groups were adulterated.

The Poison Squad follows the work of one particular USDA chief chemist, an Indiana-born scientist by the name of Harvey Washington Wiley, who became a zealot for consumer protection in America’s exploding industrial food landscape. Moralistic, determined, and unwavering in his commitment to food safety, Wiley earned his start in 1882 at the USDA in President Chester A. Arthur’s administration.

From the beginning, Wiley sought to expose industrial food producers lying about their products and hold them accountable. In 1899, however, a new epidemic entered the news cycle. In the same month, public health leaders identified “embalmed milk” as the culprit in hundreds of deaths in Nebraska and Indiana. Widespread concern about the chemicals used to preserve food emerged from these incidents, and gave new voice to “pure food” advocates such as Wiley. The lethal ingredient in both particular incidents? Formaldehyde.

How did our food get here?

It is currently well-documented that formaldehyde is a useful preservative. Remember eighth grade science class, when a teacher asked you to dissect a foul-smelling dead frog? That was likely formaldehyde, keeping the dead frog tissue free from rot and bacterial growth.

Preservatives have long been a necessary mechanism of keeping food past its nature-given “best by” date. Salt, vinegar, iceboxes have all been used at various times throughout history. At the turn of the 19th century, the United States was beginning to rapidly industrialize and population centers moved from agrarian communities to dense cities more distant from the pasture. Food needed to travel further and effective refrigeration was still yet to come. The need to keep food fresher was urgent. Enter: formaldehyde.

In the early 1900s, America was facing an epidemic of preservative-laced foods, and with the emergence of deadly public health outbreaks such as the “embalmed milk” scandals of 1899, Wiley took it upon himself to explore the physiological effects of a number of new chemical preservatives including borax (a common chemical disinfectant now banned in American food products), sodium benzoate, and sulfites. To this end, Wiley became nationally famous through a series of experiments (of questionable morality, I might add) with a group of sturdy, young government employees. Wiley separated his subjects into two groups and fed them three meals every day for six weeks. One group ate fresh, delicious, and nutritious meals prepared by a chef. The other group also ate fresh, delicious, nutritious meals prepared by a chef. But the second group also took a capsule of a particular pure preservative, such as borax, with each meal. Wiley then measured each group’s health throughout the six weeks. In some cases, the group fed preservatives became terribly ill: brain fog, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite were common symptoms. And in some cases, the test subjects dropped out of the study entirely before its completion. They were that sick.

These test subjects became a sensational news story, reported on by major news outlets such as The Washington Post. They became known as Wiley’s “Poison Squad.”

Throughout these studies, Wiley advocated—through tireless traveling presenting his work—for regulated removal of dangerous preservatives or, at the very least, food labeling laws. Preservatives were making people sick, he argued. Although public opinion followed Wiley’s lead, leading to an increase in “pure food” advocates, the remainder of Blum’s book is a stark reminder of the challenges that come with American food industry regulation. Proposed legislation often failed in one chamber of Congress because of influential industry lobbying.

By 1906, Wiley gained enough support to pass both the Meat Inspection Act and the Food and Drug Act, the first two pieces of legislation mandating regulation of food production. However, over the next several years, Wiley became frustrated while watching industry influence undermine weak enforcement mechanisms built into the law, eventually leaving his post as USDA chief chemist in 1912. Wiley passed away in 1930, but his legacy remained. The power wielded by government in food safety would eventually expand in 1938 to the full-blown Food & Drug Administration (FDA) through continued work of food safety advocates.

The echoes of Wiley’s efforts still resound today, both in the excesses of industry accusations (please don’t worry about whether there is cockroach poison in your LaCroix), but more importantly, in combating the efforts of industrial giants to deflect all responsibility for the effects of their products.

Blum, however, refuses to ruminate on the gloom. The Poison Squad ends with an uplifting call to action, arguing that “we need not romanticize the past but we must learn from what it tells us about our earlier mistakes. The people who fought to correct those long-ago errors still have lessons to share. The story of Harvey Washington Wiley, at his fierce and fearless best, should remind us that such crusaders are necessary in the fight.” If our food must continue to do us no harm—and nourish us instead—the lesson is that our voices are necessary in continuing advocacy for the purity of our food.

Deborah Blum’s “The Poison Squad” is available wherever books are sold, and I’d highly recommend reading it. For further insight on preservatives and food safety regulation, Gastropod does a lovely podcast about this book as well.

Peer-reviewed by Khristopher Nicholas


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