A New York Times Notable Book
The inspiration for PBS's AMERICAN EXPERIENCE film The Poison Squad.
From Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times-bestselling author Deborah Blum, the dramatic true story of how food was made safe in the United States and the heroes, led by the inimitable Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who fought for change
By the end of nineteenth century, food was dangerous. Lethal, even. "Milk" might contain formaldehyde, most often used to embalm corpses. Decaying meat was preserved with both salicylic acid, a pharmaceutical chemical, and borax, a compound first identified as a cleaning product. This was not by accident; food manufacturers had rushed to embrace the rise of industrial chemistry, and were knowingly selling harmful products. Unchecked by government regulation, basic safety, or even labelling requirements, they put profit before the health of their customers. By some estimates, in New York City alone, thousands of children were killed by "embalmed milk" every year. Citizens--activists, journalists, scientists, and women's groups--began agitating for change. But even as protective measures were enacted in Europe, American corporations blocked even modest regulations. Then, in 1883, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemistry professor from Purdue University, was named chief chemist of the agriculture department, and the agency began methodically investigating food and drink fraud, even conducting shocking human tests on groups of young men who came to be known as, "The Poison Squad."
Over the next thirty years, a titanic struggle took place, with the courageous and fascinating Dr. Wiley campaigning indefatigably for food safety and consumer protection. Together with a gallant cast, including the muckraking reporter Upton Sinclair, whose fiction revealed the horrific truth about the Chicago stockyards; Fannie Farmer, then the most famous cookbook author in the country; and Henry J. Heinz, one of the few food producers who actively advocated for pure food, Dr. Wiley changed history. When the landmark 1906 Food and Drug Act was finally passed, it was known across the land, as "Dr. Wiley's Law."
Blum brings to life this timeless and hugely satisfying "David and Goliath" tale with righteous verve and style, driving home the moral imperative of confronting corporate greed and government corruption with a bracing clarity, which speaks resoundingly to the enormous social and political challenges we face today.
America's nauseating industrial food supply of yesteryear sparks political turmoil in this engrossing study of a pure-foods pioneer. Pulitzer-winning science journalist and Undark magazine publisher Blum (The Poisoner's Handbook) looks back to the end of the 19th century, when unregulated manufacturers routinely added noxious substances to the nation's foodstuffs: cakes were colored with lead and arsenic; milk was preserved with formaldehyde; brown sugar was padded out with ground-up insects; processed meats contained every variety of flesh and filth. Blum centers the book on Harvey Wiley, crusading head of the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Chemistry, who fed a "poison squad" of human volunteers common food adulterants like borax to see if they got sick and they usually did; his reports helped pass the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Blum's well-informed narrative complete with intricate battles between industry lobbyists and a coalition of scientists, food activists, and women's groups illuminates the birth of the modern regulatory state and its tangle of reformist zeal, policy dog-fights, and occasional overreach (Wiley wanted to restrict the artificial sweetener saccharin, which nowadays is considered safe, and wasted much time trying to get corn syrup relabeled as glucose). The result is a stomach churner and a page-turner.
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The Poison Squad
Excellent reading. Well written.