“Wiley ate with the members of his “Poison Squad” when he could to offer encouragement and support. The men themselves came up with their own inspirational slogan.”
ORIGINS of the FDA
“An illuminating peek at the early—and fateful—politics of food adulteration. From 1906–1912, Dr. Wiley was the head of the USDA’s Bureau of Chemistry (later renamed Food and Drug Administration), the department charged with enforcing the country’s first food purity law, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. In this excerpt from his 1929 autobiography, Wiley details how the Bureau’s authority was illegally usurped by higher-ranking officials within the USDA under the influence of industrial food manufacturers. In one famous case, the solicitor of the USDA forbade Dr. Wiley and other workers of his Bureau from testifying in a federal case in which their testimony would have supported a ban of the food additive sodium benzoate, a compound Wiley and his fellow chemists had determined to be injurious to health yet, sadly, remains one of the most common food preservatives used today.”
Read Harvey W. Wiley’s Autobiography: Chemicals in Food (excerpt)
PROFILES in TOXICOLOGY
by Dale A. Stirling / June 2002
“In 1883, Wiley was appointed Chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Chemical Division. The division changed its name to the Bureau of Chemistry in 1898, and that is where Wiley conducted his most famous work. He authored early important studies on food adulteration (Bulletin 13, Foods and Food Adulterants, published in 1887, and republished in 1890 as Bulletin 25, A Popular Treatise on the Extent and Character of Food Adulterations). More significantly, between 1902 and 1907 Wiley directed what would become known as the Poison Squad. Employees of the Bureau of Chemistry and medical students from Georgetown Medical College received free board, eating meals prepared in the bureau’s kitchen, during the preparation of which, specific quantities of commonly used chemical preservatives were added to the ingredients. Low paid recent graduates eagerly signed up to join the so-called Poison Squad. In essence, the subjects were undergoing medical monitoring—they were required to record their weight, temperature, and pulse rate before each meal and to list what they ate. Thereafter, urine and feces samples were collected. The end result was to determine to what level chemicals were retained, excreted, or changed in their bodies and if any symptoms noted could be attributed to those chemicals. Chemicals used in these experiments included borax, boric acid, copper sulfate, potassium nitrate, saccharin, salicylic acid and salicylates, sulfuric acid and sulfites, benzoic acid and benzoates, and formaldehyde.
“In 1902, Congress authorized funds for human trials of controversial food preservatives to determine if they would be used safely. They soon became known as “the Poison Squad.”
Dr. Wiley’s promotion of food safety resulted in passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Earlier attempts at such legislation had failed, and this landmark law was the first to regulate the development and production of safe foods and drugs. Both Wiley’s administration of the law and concerns over preserving chemicals that had not been specifically addressed in the law caused some controversy. Nevertheless, under Wiley’s leadership, the Bureau of Chemistry grew in size and stature after assuming responsibility for enforcement of the 1906 Act (FDA 2001). Wiley was a prolific writer during his tenure with the Bureau of Chemistry. The Government Printing Office published four of his major studies, including Influence of Food Preservatives and Artificial Colors on Digestion and Health v. Formaldehyde in 1908. Wiley also wrote several books during this time period, including Chemistry and Longevity: Food in its Relation to Individual and National Development (1900, The Hundred Years Club, New York). Dr. Wiley retired from the Bureau of Chemistry in 1912 and became director of the Bureau of Foods Sanitation and Health for Good Housekeeping magazine. While working for the magazine, Wiley developed the well-known Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, which is still in use today.
Another significant contribution of Dr. Wiley`s was his role in the founding of the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists in 1884. The association developed, tested, standardized, and validated methods of analysis required for enforcing laws related to agricultural commodities. He served as its president in 1886 and was secretary from 1889 to 1912. In addition, Wiley served as chairman of the association’s Pure-Food Legislation Committee. In 1965, the association name was changed from the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists to its present name, the Association of Official Analytical Chemists, International in 1991 (Iowa State University, 1999). Wiley continued to write books after leaving the Bureau, including Not by Bread Alone: The Principles of Human Nutrition (1915, Hearst’s International Library, New York) and Beverages and their Adulteration: Origin, Composition, Manufacture, Natural, Artificial, Fermented, Distilled, Alkaloidal and Fruit Juices, 1919 (Blakiston’s Sons, Philadelphia). In 1929, Wiley revisited his earlier glories and controversies in his self-published book, The History of a Crime Against the Food Law: The Amazing Story of the National Food and Drug Law Intended to Protect the Health of the People, Perverted to Protect Adulteration of Foods and Drugs.”
PURE FOOD and DRUGS
Bring Back the Poison Squad
by Deborah Blum / March 02, 2011
“This year’s first major food poisoning outbreak—more than 140 people in 26 states sickened by infected sprouts —hardly made headlines. Of course, it was nothing special given our recent history of dangerous dining. Remember last year’s recall of almost half-a-billion eggs due to bacterial contamination fears? The tainted peanut butter fiasco of 2009, which killed nine people and sickened more than 700? Or the 2008 food poisoning outbreak, linked to spicy peppers, which caused more than 1,300 illnesses? It’s as if we’ve become accustomed—or maybe a better word would be resigned—to living in a country where people shouldn’t really trust their food. None of these were isolated incidents, after all. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that food poisoning outbreaks can be blamed for 76 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths annually.
We can be proud that our government responded to this alarming pattern by passing a new law this year seeking to better protect the nation’s food safety. The act gives the Food and Drug Administration unprecedented enforcement powers, such as the right to remove dangerous foodstuffs from the market rather than negotiating for voluntary recalls. We can also be proud of the spirit in which legislation came into being—passed by the Senate by a bipartisan vote of 73 to 25 and the House by 215 to 144 before being signed into law by President Obama in early January. But it would be a mistake to see the Food Safety Modernization Act as anything more than a tentative step in the right direction. Although it does further empower the FDA, it fails to strengthen the authority of the Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for safety of the meat supply. In fact, the latest White House budget request, while asking for increased funding for the FDA, would reduce money for USDA inspections. And the White House request itself is facing serious opposition from a Congress that is obsessed with spending cuts.
Observers now consider funding of the food safety act to be in such peril that the New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial last week warning its physician readers not to expect real progress anytime soon. Or to quote precisely: “Recent reports in the media calling this act ‘historic legislation’ must be tempered by the reality that without the necessary resources, requiring the FDA to carry out the law’s required activities will be like trying to get blood out of a rock.” But here’s hoping we won’t be driven to that blood-from-stone position, that our government representatives will continue to work together to keep us on the path toward safer food. Or failing that, that our food protection advocates will roll up their sleeves for an all-out push to keep the poisons out of our daily bread.
There’s excellent precedent for such actions. If we look back to a similar crisis of food safety in the last century, we see that federal regulators were willing to risk their lives to protect the rest of us. I’m talking, of course, about USDA scientist Harvey Washington Wiley, who helped pioneer food safety legislation by creating volunteer “poison squads” to taste-test the nation’s groceries. At the time when Wiley began his work with the poison squad, the powerful food industry had managed to derail every attempt to regulate its products. No labeling requirements existed, no safety tests, no monitoring of additives, no good information on the risks. Determined to change this, Wiley persuaded Congress in 1902 to fund what he called “hygienic table trials” of commercial food products.
His plan was simple from the beginning. He’d build a test kitchen and dining room in the basement of the Agriculture Department building on Independence Avenue. Then he’d serve poisoned food to a group of young volunteers. Wiley chose men in their 20s because he thought they were sturdy enough to withstand the diet he had in mind. The first 12 members of the squad were all department employees who had agreed to eat their meals in Wiley’s kitchen over a span of six months. The menus were set so that each day’s food would include exactly one suspect ingredient. Squad members never knew what possible poison they were eating. Still, they all signed waivers absolving the government of liability for possible health impacts.
It helped that the meals served from that tidy kitchen were guaranteed excellent—a typical meal might be roast chicken, braised beef, buttered asparagus, hot rolls, and fresh fruit pies with coffee and cream. The only catch was that one of those dishes—and the squad members never knew which—would be laced with a test substance. These added ingredients were chosen by Wiley from a list of highly suspect preservatives and coloring agents used in food.
The first compound mixed into the meals was borax, a commonly used preservative loaded with the silvery, metallic element boron. Borax and the related compound, boric acid, were high on Wiley’s list because butchers commonly mixed them with salt and red dye to disguise old, or even rotting, meat. Wiley started out by mixing borax powder into butter but rapidly discovered that the diners were responding to its metallic tang. They quit buttering their bread. He then mixed it into milk and coffee, but the men then began avoiding those beverages. Finally, Wiley gave up on deception altogether. He simply placed capsules of the poison into a serving bowl, and put it out for each meal.
The most remarkable part of the story is that the men doggedly swallowed those borax-filled capsules. They did so even though they developed persistent low-grade headaches, nausea, and rumbling abdominal pain as a result. Borax, as we now know, is not acutely poisonous, but it’s definitely irritating to tissues and over the long term can cause weight loss and reproductive system damage. “Today the men are thinner than usual and all show the effects of the strain,” the New York Times reported in 1904, in an article on some recent graduates from the poison squad.
“William R. Carter was the waiter and cook for the “Poison Squad.” When access to Harvey Wiley was cut off, reporters began to interview Carter through the kitchen window to get each day’s menu. He was popular with the men, who described him as “courteous and tactful” even as “appetites were sometimes ravenous and sometimes rebelliousl and often tempers were short and strained.” Carter later became a lab technician and retired in April, 1946 with the longest tenure of any of the FDA’s “charter members.”
Later volunteers swallowed capsules filled with other toxic food additives, including copper sulfate and formaldehyde. Copper sulfate, today primarily used as a pesticide, was at the time added to fancy grades of peas to make them look greener than ordinary ones. Formaldehyde, used as a meat preservative, is widely known today as a corrosive poison and suspected carcinogen. Wiley had to end those tests early when the men became so sick that they could not rise from their beds. ”The addition of formaldehyde to food tends to derange metabolism,” Wiley explained.
In retrospect, historians have suggested that the poison squad trials were as much showmanship as meticulous science. The cozy-kitchen style of doing research and the very public nature of the studies made the work seem less than clinical. The squads were so widely known that songs were written about their heroic work, a form of tribute that doesn’t usually follow the traditional research approach published in medical journals.
But there’s no doubt that Wiley and his determined volunteers raised public awareness of a risky food supply. That awareness, that growing realization of danger, put intense pressure on the government to fix the problem of contaminated food. Four years after the squads were established, the nation’s first law regulating food and pharmaceutical manufacturing went into effect. It was officially known as the Pure Food and Drug Act. Of course, everyone called it the Wiley Act instead.
Is there a case to be made for bringing back Wiley-style crusading to keep our new food safety law on course? Maybe not the poison squads specifically. Decades of research later, we know too much about toxic chemicals to ask regulators to engage in such risky behavior. And the challenges of keeping the food supply safe today are very different. Thanks to Wiley—and other 20th-century safety advocates—our biggest risks are no longer food additives. When we say food poisoning, we mean bacterial contamination, such as the salmonella implicated in last year’s egg recall, rather than preservatives like borax.
“Harvey Wiley, Chief Chemist of the Division of Chemistry and other division employees sometime after 1890. In Washington he became an effective advocate for pure food and drugs. He was especially popular with women’s groups and his secretary recalled that she knew he was going out on the ladies’ luncheon circuit on the days he came to work dressed in his top hat and tails.”
But there is a case, a good one, for bringing back some of that protect-the-public-at-all-costs fervor. There are still unmet research needs—our need to better understand the ways that bacteria infiltrate our food, to find safer production and farming methods, to better control potentially deadly pathogens. And a recent CDC study points out that in the case of an outbreak, rapid, intensive investigations would help us to identify the cause so much faster that we would save both lives and money.
To move us in that direction, we may need some of that Harvey Washington Wiley crusading spirit. A man who would create poison squads, and some federal employees who would volunteer to serve on them—these are the sort of people who would fight hard and with public fury to make sure that decent safety legislation had a chance to succeed. Those early 20th-century scientists, advocates, and citizens would not be resigned to this epidemic of food poisoning. A hundred years later we should not be either.”
by Bruce Watson / June 27, 2013
“While the kitchen in the basement of the Agriculture Department’s offices in Washington DC was unorthodox, it was hard to fault the food. The menu was wide and varied, and the chef, known only as “Perry,” had an impressive resume, including a stint as the “head chef for the Queen of Bavaria.” The chicken was fresh, the potatoes perfectly prepared, the asparagus toothsome yet not tough. Everything was of the highest quality. Including the poison. At first, it was borax, a bright white mineral, finely ground, and shipped in fresh from the burnings wastes of Death Valley, CA, where it was mined. Perry hid it in the butter, until he noticed that the twelve workers who took their meals at his table were avoiding the spread. Next, he mixed it in with their milk, but they stopped drinking the milk, too, complaining that it tasted “metallic.” Finally, Perry gave up, and began packing the borax into capsules. Between courses, the diners would dutifully wash them down.
In 1902, when the group that ate at Perry’s table first convened, it didn’t have a name. Its leader, the Agriculture Department’s Chief Chemist, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, referred to the project as the “hygienic table trials,” but it wasn’t long before Washington Post reporter George Rothwell Brown came up with a better name: The Poison Squad. The goal of the Poison Squad was simple: they were tasked with trying some of the most commonly used food additives in order to determine their effects. During each of the poison squads trials, the members would eat steadily increasing amounts of each additive, carefully tracking the impact that it had on their bodies. They would stop when the members started to get sick.
“Pictured here are some of the volunteers in a study of the effects of food preservatives on health, conducted at the Bureau of Chemistry, which succeeded the Division of Chemistry and preceded FDA, around 1902. The participants were fed carefully measured quantities of different additives as part of a standardized diet.”
The human lab rats were “twelve young clerks, vigorous and voracious.” All were graduates of the civil service exam, all were screened for “high moral character,” and all had reputations for “sobriety and reliability.” One was a former Yale sprinter, another a captain in the local high school’s cadet regiment, and a third a scientist in his own right. All twelve took oaths, pledging one year of service, promising to only eat food that was prepared in the Poison Squad’s kitchen, and waiving their right to sue the government for damages — including death — that might result from their participation in the program.
Squad members needed a lot of patience. Before each meal, they had to weigh themselves, take their temperatures and check their pulse rates. Their stools, urine, hair and sweat were collected, and they had to submit to weekly physicals. When one member got a haircut without permission, he was allegedly sent back to the barber with orders to collect his shorn locks. Most of the squad members didn’t get extra pay for their hazardous duty: in return for their patience and obedience, they received three square meals a day — all of which were carefully poisoned.
There was one more rule: although many of the most prominent food crusaders were women, squad members had to be men. An outspoken misogynist, Dr. Wiley was prone to referring to women as “savages,” claiming that they lacked “the brain capacity” of men. His staff was similarly inclined: when the program replaced Chef Perry with a female cook, one worker griped that ladies were not fit for cooking — or poisoning. “A woman! Tut, tut. Why the very idea!,” he reportedly said, “A woman can potter around a domestic hearth, but when it comes to frying eggs in a scientific mode and putting formaldehyde in the soup — never.”
Wiley had other quirks. A Civil War veteran and graduate of Indiana Medical College and Harvard, he was among the first professors hired at Purdue University. He was also one of the first fired, an unfortunate turn of events that occurred when he scandalized the University administration by playing baseball and buying a bicycle -– a mode of conveyance that, in the words of one of the University’s trustees, made him look “like a monkey … astride a cartwheel.”
At Purdue, Wiley experimented with food additives, testing each chemical by, in his words, “trying it on the dog.” Soon after getting hired by the Agriculture Department, he waded into the pure food fight, pushing for federal regulation of additives. In response, high-paid lobbyists from the packing and canning industries went on the offensive, shutting down each of Wiley’s proposed bills. To show the physical costs of food additives, Wiley designed the table trials — and convinced Congress to give him $5,000 to fund them. Officially, the goal was to “investigate the character of food preservatives, coloring matters, and other substances added to foods, to determine their relation to digestion and to health, and to establish the principles which should guide their use.” Unofficially, Wiley hoped to use the table trials as a springboard to enact widespread food regulation.
Wiley’s first target was borax. One of the most common food preservatives in 1902, it tightened up animal proteins, giving the impression of freshness; consequently, packers often used it to doctor decomposing meat. From October 1902 to July 1903, Wiley’s squad ate it with every meal, as was demonstrated by a Christmas menu published by the Poison Squad’s kitchen:
The Poison Squad soon became famous for its borax consumption, and Wiley became popularly known as “Old Borax.” Before long, the group determined that borax did, indeed, cause headaches, stomachaches, and other digestive pains…in addition to imparting an unpleasant flavor to food. Borax defeated, the poison squad moved on to test other common additives, including sulfuric acid, saltpeter and formaldehyde. One of their targets, copper sulfate, was especially disturbing: used by food producers to turn canned peas a bright shade of green, it also caused a host of health woes, including nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, liver damage, kidney damage, brain damage, and jaundice. Today, it’s commonly used as a pesticide.
Even after Wiley’s squad managed to demonstrate the negative effects of several additives, he still had to fight against the powerful food lobby. In fact, the Secretary of Agriculture himself suppressed several of the Poison Squad’s reports; the one on benzoic acid only got out because a staffer misunderstood his orders and sent it out to print while the Secretary was on vacation. But while lobbyists could suppress Wiley’s findings, they couldn’t control newspapers, which breathlessly reported on the group’s menus and members, its poisons and their effects. Afraid that the press might trivialize his efforts, Wiley tried to stem the tide, instituting a blackout and threatening to fire any member of the squad who leaked information. This didn’t keep stories from appearing in the papers: denied access to facts, reporters printed rumors and made up elaborate tales. Eventually, Wiley relented, and began to actively publicize the squad. As he later bragged, “My poison squad laboratory became the most highly advertised boarding-house in the world.”
The Poison Squad was also memorialized in songs and advertisements (pdf). The most famous was probably “The Song of the Pizen (Poison) Squad,” by poet S.W. Gillilan, a poem that exaggerated the squad’s exploits: “On Prussic acid we break our fast; we lunch on a morphine stew; We dine with a matchhead consomme, drink carbolic acid brew; Corrosive sublimate tones us up like laudanum ketchup rare, While tyro-toxicon condiments are wholesome as mountain air. Thus all the “deadlies” we double-dare to put us beneath the sod; We’re death-immunes and we’re proud as proud– Hooray for the Pizen Squad!”
Wiley’s efforts eventually paid off. On 1906, Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act – the first federal laws aimed at food regulation. In the process, Wiley also had to cede his bully pulpit to the biggest bully of them all: Teddy Roosevelt. Although the Pure Food and Drug Act was originally known as “the Wiley Act,” Roosevelt took full credit for its passage, leaving Wiley in the cold. Even so, Wiley’s power grew: the Bureau of Chemistry was charged with enforcing the new law. The Poison Squad closed up shop in 1907, and Wiley left the Agriculture Department in 1912, moving on to become head of testing for Good Housekeeping. And if there was some irony in the famed misogynist becoming the public face of one of America’s most prominent women’s publications, it was only added to by the fact that, in 1911, he married Anna Kelton, a suffragette who was literally half his age. By all accounts, the pair led a happy life together: they had two sons, and were still married when Wiley died on June 30, 1930, on the 24th anniversary of the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Today, they’re buried together in Arlington National Cemetery, a fitting tribute to the man who is still referred to as “The Father of the FDA.”
Dr. Harvey “Old Borax” Wiley and His Poison Squad
by Lindsey Beckley / June 13, 2016
“For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the early Pure Food movement is Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle.However, Hoosier Harvey Wiley’s work in the field was already at its apex when Sinclair’s exposé was released. When Dr. Wiley started his career in the mid- to late-19th century, the production of processed foods in the US was on the rise due to the increasing number of urban dwellers unable to produce their own fresh food. With little to no federal regulation in this manufacturing, food adulteration was rampant. Dr. Wiley made it his mission prove the importance of food regulation. With the help of a group of men known as the Poison Squad, he did just that.
Harvey Washington Wiley was born on a small farmstead near Kent, Indiana on October 18, 1844. He attended Hanover College from 1863-1867, with the exception of a few months in 1864 when he served in Company I of 137th Indiana Volunteers during the Civil War. After graduating in 1867, Wiley moved to Indianapolis and began teaching at Butler University while earning his Ph.D. from the Medical College of Indiana. It was in 1874 that Dr. Wiley began his work as a chemist at Purdue University, where he developed an interest in adulterated food.
Wiley argued that mass-produced food, as opposed to food produced locally in small quantities, contained harmful additives and preservatives and misled consumers about what they were actually eating. In the coming decades, Wiley would prove that this theory was correct and serve as one of the public faces of the pure food movement. As a 1917 advertisement in The (New York) Sun put it: “Dr. Wiley it was who, at Washington, first roused the country to an appreciation of purity and wholesomeness in foods. He has been the one conspicuous figure in food betterment and food conservation in the present generation.” In 1883, Wiley was appointed Chief Chemist of the Bureau of Chemistry, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture. While serving in this capacity, Wiley made the establishment of federal standards of food, beverages, and medication his priority. To this end, governmental testing of food, beverages, and ingredients began in 1902. The most famous of these tests were the “hygienic table trials,” better known by the name given to them by the media: “The Poison Squad.”
During these trials, “twelve young clerks, vigorous and voracious” were fed and boarded in the basement of the Agricultural Department building in Washington D.C. Before each meal the men would strip and be weighed, any alteration in their condition being noted. At any one time, six of the group would be fed wholesome, unadulterated food. The other six were fed food laced with commonly used additives such as borax and formaldehyde. Every two weeks, the two groups would be switched. While the position of poison squad member may sound like it would be a hard one to fill, volunteers were lining up to participate in the tests, even writing letters like the one below.
The experiments commenced in November of 1902 and by Christmas, spirits among the Squad members were low. According to a Washington Post article from December 26, “The borax diet is beginning to show its effect on Dr. Wiley’s government-fed boarders at the Bureau of Chemistry, and last night when the official weights were taken just before the Christmas dinner the six guests who are taking the chemical course showed a slight decrease in avoirdupois . . . To have lost flesh on Christmas Day, when probably everybody else in Washington gained more or less from feasting, was regarded by the boarders themselves as doubly significant.” A look at the “unprinted and unofficial menu” from the Christmas meal, also printed in the Post, sheds some light on what may have given the boarders pause in their Christmas feasting. Much of the information reported by the press during this time came from the members of the squad themselves, until “Old Borax” as Wiley came to be known, issued a gag-order in order to preserve the sanctity of the scientific studies happening.
Despite the order, public interest had been peaked and tongues and pens wagged around the country. As one Columbia University scholar put it, “Supreme County justices could be heard jesting about the Squad in public, and even minstrel shows got in on the act.” There were even poems and songs written about the trials. “If ever you should visit the Smithsonian Institute, Look out that Professor Wiley doesn’t make you a recruit. He’s got a lot of fellows there that tell him how they feel, They take a batch of poison every time they eat a meal. For breakfast they get cyanide of liver, coffin shaped, For dinner, undertaker’s pie, all trimmed with crepe; For supper, arsenic fritters, fried in appetizing shade, And late at night they get a prussic acid lemonade. They may get over it, but they’ll never look the same. That kind of a bill of fare would drive most men insane. Next week he’ll give them moth balls, a LA Newburgh, or else plain. They may get over it, but they’ll never look the same.” -Lew Dockstade, “They’ll Never Look the Same”
At the close of the Borax trials in 1903, Wiley began cultivating relationships with some journalists, perhaps in hopes of turning the reports from jovial, and sometimes untrue, conjectures to something more closely resembling the serious work being done. Along with borax and formaldehyde, the effects of salicylic acid, saccharin, sodium benzoate and copper salts were all studied during the Hygienic Table Trials. The reports generated during the Hygienic Table Trials and the media coverage that followed set the stage for the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the same year in which the trials were concluded. According to the FDA, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, also known as The Wiley Act, serves the purpose of “preventing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic therein. By requiring companies to clearly indicate what their products contained and setting standards for the labeling and packaging of food and drugs, the Act helped consumers make informed decisions about products that could affect their health. While controversies over additives and government regulations continue to this day, Dr. Harvey Wiley and his Poison Squad played a major role in making the food on our tables safe to eat.”
19th Century Chemist Who Took On The Food Industry With Grisly Experiments
by Ari Shapiro / October 8, 2018
“Unlabeled stimulants in soft drinks. Formaldehyde in meat and milk. Borax — the stuff used to kill ants! — used as a common food preservative. The American food industry was once a wild and dangerous place for the consumer. Deborah Blum‘s new book, The Poison Squad, is a true story about how Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, named chief chemist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1883, conducted a rather grisly experiment on human volunteers to help make food safer for consumers — and his work still echoes on today. Wiley was an indefatigable activist for food safety regulations during a time when the food industry was organizing and adding substances to food without any oversight, using its might to put profits before people. But Wiley and his small band of chemists began methodically testing suspected harmful additives and revealing the effects of these dangerous compounds to the government and public. It was a long battle, but one that did make things better. Nevertheless, we still have debates today over what is safe for us to eat.”
AS: You start the book by noting that we have this conception of the food our ancestors ate as being pure and authentic, straight from the farm. What was the reality?
DB: It was about the opposite of that. To be fair, there were people who lived on the farm and ate wonderful produce from their gardens, but most people were in this period of migration to the cities. This is the rise of industrialized America in the late 19th century, so most people were eating manufactured, grocery store-bought food. I was actually shocked to discover it was horrifyingly fake, fraudulent and tainted by any and all chemicals [people] felt like putting in it.
AS: So what might people in 1900 have found in their milk, or their coffee, or their spices?
DB: I took a close look at milk, because it’s a great example of just how bad things could get. Dairymen seeking to stretch their profits would thin it with water – and not always clean water. At one point, there was a case in Indiana in which it was pond water. The family found worms wiggling in it.
AS: And pond water was actually some of the safer stuff that milk was contaminated with!
DB: That’s exactly right, because once you had thinned the milk, you had to reconstitute it in all kinds of weird ways. People put chalk or plaster dust in it. They sometimes put in toxic dyes to make it more golden instead of grayish or bluish. And because it was prone to rot — this was before pasteurization and refrigeration — they would dump preservatives in it. The most popular one was formaldehyde, an embalming compound, which is not good for humans to ingest. You can actually go out and see newspaper headlines around the country during this period with “embalmed milk scandals.”
AS: You tell stories of kids dying from eating candy that was contaminated with lead. Given that this was causing real suffering in consumers, what kinds of arguments were people making for leaving this unregulated?
DB: It’s baffling, because you are in this period where food makers are knowingly using very bad things. I gave the example of arsenic, which was a green food dye also used to make the shellac that glosses up chocolate. But lead was used to color candies, and red lead was used in cheese. If people wanted to make a beautiful, orange cheddar cheese, they just dumped a little red lead in it. This is not people who didn’t know it was bad, but there were things that made it permissible. There were no labels, and so there was no public pressure. It was just a pre-regulatory Wild West of food that permitted bad actors to do what they will, and so they did. It saved them a lot of money. You get this capitalistic feedback loop of people who were trying to make a living – and wanting to make more of a living. The consumer was both the guinea pig and the victim.
AS: So along comes a protagonist of your story: Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, chief chemist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Why did he care so much about this issue?
DB: I’ve always thought of him as kind of a holy roller kind of chemist. He was the son of an itinerant preacher and farmer in Indiana who was also a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Wiley was raised to think that what he did needed to be a higher calling. He would describe chemistry that way: Chemistry is the service of good. So this tiny group of chemists that he commanded at the USDA was it on food safety. He took up that cause.
AS: Your book is called The Poison Squad, which comes from a project that he undertook that really shows his commitment. Describe what The Poison Squad was.
DB: Wiley basically goes out and recruits other people at the USDA, especially young clerks, to volunteer to dine very dangerously. The idea of The Poison Squad was that these young men would get three free meals a day, seven days a week – all of them paid for by the U.S. government. They have to agree not to have snacks or eat outside of these free meals. These are super fancy meals cooked by a professional chef. All of the ingredients are amazing. The only catch is: You have to agree that half of you at any given period in this experiment are going to be given capsules that contain suspect food additives. And these did include formaldehyde, and the cleaning product Borax, and salicylic acid, which we know from aspirin. And the amazing thing is that there were people lining up to volunteer for this experiment. And you wonder, ‘Is this crazy or what?’ You are testing suspected toxic compounds on human volunteers. But he felt that was the only way he could deal with this. You had this rising tide of really dangerous food additives and there were no safety regulations. ‘How do I make a case that perhaps this is not a good idea? I’ll just test it on people.’ And so he did.
AS: To no one’s surprise, if you feed people formaldehyde, or arsenic or lead, they will get sick. And when you demonstrate that, why does it still remain so difficult to outlaw these substances in food?
DB: The food industry had been organizing itself to fight regulation. Wiley had been advocating and working with congressmen to get some kind of basic consumer protection. And these experiments caught national attention — they were front-page news, there were songs about them — and everyone was realizing that there is a lot of bad stuff in their food. There was an immediate pushback. Suddenly, congressmen are on the side of food business or getting offered more money. The food industry organizes to create a Food Manufacturers Association. They were phenomenally effective. They did a great job trying to damage Wiley’s reputation publicly and deny what he was finding, and bullied and threatened congressmen to kill regulation every time it came up.
AS: Despite these long-fought fights, today there isn’t formaldehyde and lead and arsenic in food the way that there was 100 years ago. Progress really was made!
DB: Yes, and I would be completely irresponsible if I said that food today is as dangerous as it was in the 19th century. Once the first food-safety law was passed in 1906, two years after Wiley finished his Poison Squad experiments, you see government stepping up against some of these extremely dangerous compounds. But we are still having fights about what’s safe. The list of dyes that we have in food today is the exact list that Wiley approved, minus a couple that fell out when they became known to be more toxic. So we’ve both improved things, and not moved forward as much as Wiley would have liked or I have come to believe we should.”
LEAD and NEURONAL DEATH