The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade For Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, by Deborah Blum, is as close to a perfect work of nonfiction as I can imagine. If I didn’t know better, I would have said that it was custom written for me. This book follows the career of Dr. Harvey Wiley, a tireless proponent of legislation to keep food safe for consumers. His chemical work and political advocacy helped bring about the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and government regulation that helps keep Americans safe and healthy to this day. Without Wiley’s work, unscrupulous food, drink, and drug manufacturers would have continued to adulterate these products with poison and sold garbage under false labels. This may not sound all that exciting, but this book is packed with political scandals and (my favorite) horrible stories about awful historical practices. Blum writes about all of this with wit and fairness that made it all a pleasure to read—but only for people with strong stomachs.
The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was the result of decades of work by pure food advocates and researchers like Dr. Harvey Wiley. Prior to its passage, it was not uncommon for meat and dairy products to be laced with formaldehyde as a preservative; for candy to be colored with toxic coal-tar dyes or canned peas to be colored with copper sulfate; or for products like coffee, tea, cocoa, and spices to be the actual sweepings from the floor sold as cheaper versions of the real thing. (Last night, I was recounting some of these gems to my sister on the phone until she changed the subject for some reason.) Three things infuriated Wiley. First was the fact that manufacturers adulterated food and drinks with toxic and potentially toxic substances. Second, Wiley was adamant that everything sold be accurately labeled. Corn syrup should be called glucose. Blended and colored alcohols should under no circumstances be sold as “whiskey.” The third thing, I think, is the one that made Wiley the angriest: the constant fighting against manufacturers who used money and influence to gut safety laws and regulations so that they could keep making money.
This battle plays out through the course of The Poison Squad. Wiley and his team will discover some substance being used that sickens people or investigating cases of poisoning, publish excoriating bulletins about these substances, then be defeated by corporate interests most of the time. Wiley, as the head of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry, had volunteers who would take varying doses of adulterants and preservatives to see what would happen. Some of the trials, as with sodium benzoate, had to be stopped early because the volunteers got so sick. (Sodium benzoate is still used as a preservative, because it is generally accepted as safe under certain limits. Wiley’s volunteers went above that limit.) It would seem like common sense to legislate and regulate against these substances, but anytime Wiley made a recommendation, lobbyists and manufacturers would raise a hue and cry that legislation would destroy business. Blum only says it explicitly in the epilogue, but it isn’t hard to read between the lines that this is still happening in the United States, especially now that the Republicans are in charge.
What partially turned the tide was Wiley and his allies’ rallying public opinion against manufacturers of adulterated food and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle*. Blum quotes Sinclair, who wrote about his best-known novel, “I aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Sinclair and other journalists, who visited packing plants and talked with the victims of poisonings and their survivors, raised so much hell that legislators were forced to legislate. The first half of the book recounts the uphill battle to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act. The second reveals how many loopholes and inefficiencies there were in the law and how far people like Wiley still had to go in order to make food, drink, and medicines safe for consumers.
Most of The Poison Squad is a justly deserved paean to Dr. Wiley, but I appreciated Blum’s efforts to show his problematic parts, too. Wiley’s courtship of his wife bothered me. I was frustrated more than once with Wiley’s inability to keep his mouth shut at critical moments, as well as his sometimes sloppy science in his race to prove that certain chemicals were harmful. Blume also gives time to the scores of others—his volunteers, journalists, other food chemists, the increasingly powerful women’s political action groups, and friendly legislators—who also helped promote food safety legislation and regulation. Above all, this book made me appreciate how much effort went into making sure that I can trust what I eat and drink. I said a little prayer of gratitude to Wiley and his allies yesterday as I heated up a can of tomato soup to eat with my grilled cheese. And I smiled to see the label on the side of the can listing the ingredients, which came from Wiley’s work.
* I read The Jungle in college and there are parts of this book that are still ingrained in my memory. Like other readers, it made me turn vegetarian for a long time.