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We Owe Food Regulation to a 19th-Century Chemist Who Poisoned His Colleagues

The Poison Squad, as they became known, was a group of men who willingly consumed dangerous substances to force the government into consumer protections

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The rust on a white tin plate forms the shape of a skull and crossbones; a fork and spoon frame it on either side. AmEx Films/PBS

What does it take to get the American government to care about its citizens more than corporations? It’s a dilemma that activists have been churning over for centuries, but one chemist in the early 1900s thought he had the answer: he systematically poisoned a bunch of strapping young men.

At the turn of the 20th century, American food producers could get away with putting just about anything in their food. And they did. Milk was full of chalk and formaldehyde. Canned food had salicylic acid, borax, and copper sulfate. Producers sold corn syrup as honey and colored lard as butter, and there were no laws or consequences to false labeling. Dr. Harvey Wiley, a chemist at the USDA, spent years researching mislabeled food, and realized that consumers had no idea what they were consuming and no one knew the long term effects of these additives. So he gathered “the Poison Squad,” a group of young men who voluntarily consumed poison so that Dr. Wiley could examine the effects. They became a pop culture sensation, inspiring poems and minstrel shows. And eventually, their work brought about the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which led to the creation of the FDA.

Watching The Poison Squad, the new documentary by American Experience based on Deborah Blum’s book of the same name, gave me a bad case of deja vu. It’s all about greedy corporations that have secret (and not-so secret) partnerships with greedy politicians; rich people having access to healthier, cleaner food than poor people; an American public fighting for the right to eat, the most basic thing anyone needs to do, safely. It’s eerily familiar as President Trump rolling back federal inspections on pork, and it feels like we’re in The Jungle again.

I spoke to Blum about her research on Dr. Wiley, the ongoing fight to keep our food safe, and the question of who has the luxury of knowing what’s in their food. (This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

Eater: At The Poison Squad premiere, everybody was talking about the modern parallels of the film. The fight between what big food corporations want to do with food and what’s good for the people who eat’s a constant, ongoing battle.

Deborah Blum: I didn’t realize when I started the book how many parallels to today there would be. The book and now the film allow for this platform to let people know how critical this is, and how important these kinds of safety consumer protections are, and that we’re at a moment where we once again have to plant our feet and say, this matters. I felt very lucky about the timing, and unlucky because I don’t like these things being rolled back.

At the turn of the 20th century, we had food with preservatives that were literally lethal. There was the swill milk scandal where thousands of people, mostly children, were poisoned. Just from a business standpoint, this seems like it would be bad business for the milk producers. So why were they continuing to use these dangerous additives?

Why do you alter a natural product in the ways that they do? Because it’s profitable. And in the case of milk, one of the ways that both dairymen and breweries could make extra product was to take the spent mash from the swill (that’s what a swill dairy was) from fermenting and making beer and give it to cows as food because it had grain in it. Of course, it was screwed up, horrible grain but it was cheap for the dairymen and it gave a little extra money to the breweries. So you had this sort of non-nutritive milk; it both destroyed the health of the cows and it produced this horrible milk. They did other things; they’d water the milk, they’d re-whiten it with chalk and plaster of Paris. They didn’t really care about cleanliness. If the milk was teeming with bacteria, they’d put formaldehyde in it, which became famous after the Civil War. It’s cheap, it’s synthetic, it tastes kind of sweet-ish; Now your milk lasts a long time and the formaldehyde disguises the taste of the rot even as it’s rotting. So, huge profits.

There was no public health service. So even if your kids are dying, you can’t prove what it is. Everything errs on the side of the corrupt manufacturer in the 19th century, because not only are there no safety regulations and no powerful advocate to say “this killed your kid.” The information wasn’t out there. There was no requirement for labeling. Our labels are inaccurate today, but at least we have them.

Today, the European system is precautionary, this appears to be dangerous; the American system is more, people aren’t dropping in the streets so we’re going to permit it. We have a lot of food additives that we don’t understand, and we buy them because they’re inexpensive and we’re on a limited budget. We can get all holy roller about processed food but sometimes that’s all people can afford.

That was a parallel that really came through — even today you have people who can afford organic milk, or the farmer’s market milk, and people who can’t.

That’s why when people go, “Oh well, be an informed consumer,” I’m like, “Yeah, but…”

You call yourself more of a science writer than a food writer. How did you first come across Dr. Wiley’s work?

I often describe myself as a toxicology journalist. We live on a chemical planet, and we exist in this web of chemicals. Very few people give us the maps and the navigation tools to know when to freak out and when not, what matters and what doesn’t. I used to tell people to just apply common sense to this particular chemical, but then I’d realize they didn’t have the information to even do the common sense thing.

While I was deep into looking at things that are dangerous to us, I’d occasionally see references to this experiment called the Poison Squad. Just the word “poison” was magic to me, like a magnet. And what got me interested in it wasn’t Wiley, although he’s fascinating, but the actual motive behind the experiment. How would you get to the point that you were so desperate to understand something, and so worried about public health, that the only solution you could come up with as a scientist was to poison your coworkers. That’s essentially what Wiley did, these were mostly young clerks in the Department of Agriculture who joined the study, and he was deliberately feeding them things that he suspected or knew were dangerous.

I realized that I had bought into this American mythology of the pink-cheeked, healthy 19th century American eating, which now makes me roll my eyes. It made me think about what food and drink was really like before regulation. Also I’m attracted to complicated people. The warm fuzzy teddy bear of a person that everyone loves is sadly often not that interesting a story to a biographer. From doing science history, I’ve come to believe that you don’t change the world if you’re a nice fuzzy teddy bear. You change the world if you’re a complicated, obsessive, determined person who plants their feet and says, this has to change.

Were there other people that were sounding this alarm? Was Wiley part of a bigger movement, or was it really just him who created change?

Part of it was the progressive movement itself. In the late 19th and early 20th century, you start seeing people push back against the Gilded Age, its big corporations and the horrible treatment of workers — which also plays into today. So the progressive movement was pushing that forward, and food safety was part of that. Upton Sinclair’s main point was to treat workers like they’re human beings, which led him into The Jungle. Teddy Roosevelt was a trust-buster who thought trusts and monopolies were actually dangerous to American society. So, all of that rolls into this.

Wiley coming to Washington, D.C. is the start of what people later called the Pure Food Movement. Other food chemists were sounding the alarm, particularly at the state level. The leaders in the Pure Food Movement were the Dakotas, Indiana, Wisconsin — states that we now think of as conservative, but were once progressive. I think Massachusetts passed its first state food safety law in the early 1880s. So, there was a widespread recognition that things weren’t safe. Wiley’s real mission was to standardize this and get this down at the federal level.

The Poison Squad was a very extreme way to test theories, and Dr. Wiley embraced the power of public opinion that it evoked. What was more effective? The results of his experiments or the attention he called to the issues in food safety.

Originally he wanted to keep this really low-key because he was afraid that if it became too much of a public spectacle, the science wouldn’t be taken seriously. He initially called it hygenic table trials, and he was trying to control the flood of information, but that just didn’t work.

Wiley was always aware of the importance of public opinion. He gradually accepted that the publicity surrounding the Poison Squad was ultimately educating the public. This was going to be the tool to help him raise awareness. It caught the public imagination in such a profound way, partly because of the drama ramped up by the Washington Post and other papers, but also the poetry and minstrel shows it inspired. People were paying attention and that was as important as the scientific response.

You described the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 as an early instance of consumer protections. The government is basically saying, okay, we need to protect consumers by regulating the food production. Do you think that declaring safe food a consumer good, rather than a human right, affects how the government sees food production?

It’s really interesting when you look at these arguments that are going on about the federal role in consumer protections. States had accepted that this is their role, and the federal government was hugely resistant to it, partially because people were actively advocating for states’ rights: it’s post-Civil War, a lot of the opposition comes from the South; they don’t want the feds telling them what to do, and Wiley is an example of a federal policeman. And there’s this central American trait of individual rights over collective rights. All of that meant huge resistance.

The 1906 is a paradigm shift. Now we’re talking about collective versus individual right; the government is in the business of consumer protection, protecting our right to safe food and drink and drugs. We have the right to not be poisoned by what we eat and drink. But that law was deeply flawed — not the law itself so much but its administration by the industry-government handshakes that followed. But it lays down the foundation for the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act that creates the modern FDA. And that principle of course underlies everything; it underlies OSHA, it underlies the EPA, it underlies all the consumer protection laws that will follow. It basically lays down that principle of collective over individual rights. It is a huge idea.

There’s a fabulous book I’ve carried around with me for years called One Hundred Million Guinea Pigs which was written by consumer protection advocates in the 1930s, when there were a hundred million people in the United States. They made the point that the way our system works is the American people are the guinea pigs. And when people die, when people get sick, when problems arise, then the government responds. That really hasn’t changed all that much. We, sadly, still operate on that principle. And immediately after the law is passed, the government works behind the backs of consumers to make sure that industry is accommodated in all of these consumer protections.

I interviewed an author who’s tracking the rise of a resurgence small dairies in America, and how so many of the FDA laws, even though they are put in place to protect people, extremely favor these big factory producers. As you said, almost as soon as these laws are put into place, you have the big industries and the big companies saying, how can we use this to our advantage, or how can we get around this.

You see in the internal memos of the USDA, the head of the Department of Agriculture saying to Wiley, you’re not being accommodating enough to business, and Teddy Roosevelt saying the same thing, then actually appointing a shadow scientific consulting group to undermine Wiley. It’s just crazy.

We accepted the role of government consumer protection, but at the same time we said as long as it isn’t too hard on industry. Both of those principles were laid down and we embraced them. Today, in the current federal administration, we shift even farther away from consumer protection and toward more accomodation of big business. Both of those principles still stand, but depending on who’s in charge, you see that balance shift.

There’s two things I hope people will take away from the film. I hope they think it’s a fascinating story. But as an American citizen today, I think the most important takeaway is that this is still relevant. We cannot take the protections we have, whether we consider them adequate or not, for granted. We all need a little Harvey Wiley in us, to plant our feet and say, no, you can’t take all of that away. We need to be aware of how strong that federal government-industry handshake is, and try to bring it out in the open.

You can watch the first part of The Poison Squad here.

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