The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

A New York Times Notable Book 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 changeBy the end of nineteenth century, food was dangerous. Lethal, even. "Milk" might contain formaldehyde, mo...

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Title:The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Author:Deborah Blum
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The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century Reviews

  • Jillian Doherty

    Page turning and solicitous! This incredible story widens the view of what we think we know about how our nation’s food. From flood shavings in the chowder, to exactly how much plaster makes sour milk looks just right again – this book is for anyone who loves reading about history that you can’t believe is true.

    Where the Food Explorer took us on a wild ride, discovering where our food came from – this wowzers of a history will make you sooooo glad we had Dr. Wiley on our side ensuring we aren’t

    Page turning and solicitous! This incredible story widens the view of what we think we know about how our nation’s food. From flood shavings in the chowder, to exactly how much plaster makes sour milk looks just right again – this book is for anyone who loves reading about history that you can’t believe is true.

    Where the Food Explorer took us on a wild ride, discovering where our food came from – this wowzers of a history will make you sooooo glad we had Dr. Wiley on our side ensuring we aren’t poisoned daily!

    Galley borrowed from the publisher.

  • Claudia

    Today, when talking about the safety of our food, we are concerned with MSG; high-fructose corn syrup; trans fats, synthetic sweeteners, artificial colors among others. In the late 1800's into the early years of the twentieth century, you would have been concerned more about arsenic, formaldehyde (yes, embalming fluid); salicylic acid, copper sulfate, and borax being used as preservatives. Coal-tar dyes to make the food appear fresh and bright. Saccharin to replace the more expensive sugar. Acet

    Today, when talking about the safety of our food, we are concerned with MSG; high-fructose corn syrup; trans fats, synthetic sweeteners, artificial colors among others. In the late 1800's into the early years of the twentieth century, you would have been concerned more about arsenic, formaldehyde (yes, embalming fluid); salicylic acid, copper sulfate, and borax being used as preservatives. Coal-tar dyes to make the food appear fresh and bright. Saccharin to replace the more expensive sugar. Acetic acid replacing lemon juice. So-called neutral spirits colored, flavored and called whiskey. Nitrites to bleach flour to brilliant whiteness. Lead and a variety of minerals in candy.

    It is suspected that hundreds if not thousands of young children were killed by milk that was more chemical than dairy - the recipe could be a pint of water to each quart of milk after the cream was skimmed off. Add a bit of chalk or plaster of paris for whitening. Molasses to give it a golden color and to replace the cream, a squirt of something that may include pureed calf brains. And don't forget the formaldehyde! Yummy, isn't it? You don't want to know what could be in butter.

    Food manufacturers were certainly inventive with their additives. Sometimes the only thing missing in the product was what it was advertised and sold as. Of course, what it could include was mashed fruit and vegetable leavings. Charred rope. Sawdust. Crushed nut shells, ground insects and floor sweepings of all kinds.

    This book is about Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemist in the employ of the federal Department of Agriculture (the infant FDA) and his fight to eliminate toxic minerals and chemicals from the foods available to the American people. The same chemicals/additives, which were forbidden for use in Europe and Canada, flooded American food.

    And it was a long, exhausting fight. Utilizing the resources available, Wiley would create his 'poison squads' which would be volunteers who would take in the chemical investigated over a period of time and record any negative impacts on their health. The data would be analyzed and the report released to the public.

    Of course, the manufacturers fought hard and long. They were all about using cheaper materials instead of authentic, pure food products. Most were certainly were not willing to make the product a few cents more expensive but without toxic additives. But Dr. Wiley had his supporters as well - the AMA, women's groups, several Congressmen and Senators, various state-level secretaries of agriculture, newspaper journalists especially after the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle which blew the lid off the meatpacking industry of Chicago. Fanny Farmer and her famous cookbook. H.J. Heinz that proved that food could be uncontaminated, tasty and appealing to the buying public.

    1906 saw the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act but food industry lobbyists managed to convince industry-friendly politicians to basically weaken and gut the law. But it was a start and Dr. Wiley eventually lost his neutrality in his crusade for unadulterated and safe food which caused tension within the Department of Agriculture. Taking on Coca Cola for their cocaine and caffeine. Taking on the whiskey manufacturers. Saccharin and bread whitening agents.

    In the end, Dr. Wiley felt the best decision for him and his family was to continue his crusade through a job offered by Good Housekeeping magazine. He never saw the modified Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 which corrected the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Unfortunately, it took the death of more than a 100 people who were poisoned and killed by cough syrup sweetened by antifreeze.

    This is a vital book to read. Not just because of how far food safety has advanced over the years but how much more work needs to be done. Additional laws and updates to food and drug regulation over the years is in danger from our current administration as Trump promised to eliminate every unnecessary regulation and it seems that the FDA and its work is once again under fire. Only time will tell if it survives or is stripped of its authority and dominion.

  • Amy

    (The Poison Squad, pg. 289)

    I found this book while browsing in my local library and picked it up because public health is always an interesting topic to me. It took me a little while to get started on this book, but once I did I could hardly put it down. The Poison Squad follows Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley in his career primarily as chief chemist for the Department of Agriculture, explains how his research on altered and deliberately unlabeled/mislabeled products came to shape his advocacy for safe and pure (or, at the very least, properly labeled) food and drink, and illustrates for readers the parallels between the complaints and schemes of business of decades ago and the complaints and schemes of business today. Just like the Earthjustice statement could have been written by Dr. Wiley, The Poison Squad is littered with quotations from 19th and 20th century businessmen, their lawyers, and the their lobbyists, that could be written - word for word - by the industry-at-any-cost interests of today.

    I knew about a couple of the cases cited in the text - the poisoning of children with milk that had been 'preserved' with formaldehyde, the mass poisoning of mainly children by Elixir Sulfanilamide - but not the vast majority. Well written, informative, and very, very relevant, The Poison Squad was an amazing book and it is one that I would highly recommend.

    However, given that a good many of the descriptions are graphic, I have one caveat: I would try not to recommend The Poison Squad to someone who didn't have at least an ok tolerance for nauseating descriptions, the likes of which are extremely likely to cause intense revulsion at the very idea of some things once being considered 'food.' For example:

    (The Poison Squad, pg. 66)

    (The Poison Squad, pg. 203)

    (The Poison Squad, pg. 229)

    (The Poison Squad, pg. 115)

    This is a small sampling of just what I could easily find and could be easily understood from a relatively short quote. I personally think the text is all the better for including these details; they do not allow industry malpractice and unethical behavior to hide behind the veneer of polite wording. I think it is necessary the same way that Upton Sinclair's graphic descriptions of the Chicago stockyards and packing plants were necessary (The Jungle, as well as other information about it and the yards themselves are also quoted, by the way). But, because I know not everyone has the same opinion as me, I would try to take into account personal taste when making - or choosing not to make - a recommendation.

  • Mary

    Fascinating but, at the same time, deeply disturbing, account of the decades-long effort by Dr. Harvey Wiley, a chemist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the beginning of the 20th century, to protect consumers from adulterated food and drugs. A hundred years ago, Dr. Wiley's name was probably familiar to most Americans. My thanks to author Deborah Blum for reminding us of his important contributions, which continue to improve our lives today.

  • Papaphilly

    What an amazing book. This is both truly well written and a reminder how history repeats. if you hear about how good the food used to be, this book reminds you how good the food really was not.

    is history at its best. Told with a reporter's eye, but with humanity,

    never lets the reader forget what is at stake. She spins a tale that reads like a well written novel, but never str

    What an amazing book. This is both truly well written and a reminder how history repeats. if you hear about how good the food used to be, this book reminds you how good the food really was not.

    is history at its best. Told with a reporter's eye, but with humanity,

    never lets the reader forget what is at stake. She spins a tale that reads like a well written novel, but never strays from the main pint of the book. This is the story of America's food purity law and the battle that started at the turn of the twentieth century and continues to this day.

    What comes across very well is this is the type of battle that is waged throughout American history. I was amazed at the companies that are under fire today were under fire then too. I am also amazed how certain brands were always industry leaders in both quality and purity. The same arguments portrayed the are used today. It is too expensive, it will not hurt the public, the government has no oversight to name just a few.

    is also about iconoclastic personalities. Dr. Wiley, the main focus of the book is so single minded, he cannot comprehend compromise.

    This is both an excellent history and an excellent read.

  • Jeimy

    This is billed as a fascinating story about how food was made safe in America, but I have to disagree with the second part of that statement. It is about how food was made safer. However, it doesn't take much for readers to see how much our capitalistic government bends to serve the whims of corporations. Food adulterations continue to occur. Read this book to understand how much has improved and ponder how far we still have to go.

  • Brenda Ayala

    Dude.

    The Industrial Revolution, for all its major leaps toward with invention and innovation, definitely fucked over some people.

    Like

    of people.

    The biggest take away from this nonfiction book is that given the opportunity, big business will screw us over tenfold unless someone holds them accountable.

    Kids died from drinking milk. That’s so mind boggling that I had to reread the paragraphs focused on that. Paragraphs, plural,

    Dude.

    The Industrial Revolution, for all its major leaps toward with invention and innovation, definitely fucked over some people.

    Like

    of people.

    The biggest take away from this nonfiction book is that given the opportunity, big business will screw us over tenfold unless someone holds them accountable.

    Kids died from drinking milk. That’s so mind boggling that I had to reread the paragraphs focused on that. Paragraphs, plural, because it HAPPENED MORE THAN ONCE OVER SEVERAL YEARS.

    This author does an amazing job of compiling all of the information together in a cohesive form. There’s a inordinate amount of information within these pages and while it can get a bit dense and repetitive, it never lost my interest. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to read it and I’m going to make damn sure everybody knows to read it.

    (Or just hold corporations like Coca-Cola accountable)

  • David

    It is heartening to see this excellent new history getting favorable attention on the

    , in

    , in

    , and in both

    and

    .

    In addition, there are already many reviews here on Goodreads that adequately summarize and elaborate on this book's fine qualities, so I thought I would allow myself the freedom to write a few words about what the century-old struggle for safer food in the US has to say about current unpleasantness. There are many similarities.

    I

    It is heartening to see this excellent new history getting favorable attention on the

    , in

    , in

    , and in both

    and

    .

    In addition, there are already many reviews here on Goodreads that adequately summarize and elaborate on this book's fine qualities, so I thought I would allow myself the freedom to write a few words about what the century-old struggle for safer food in the US has to say about current unpleasantness. There are many similarities.

    It's hard to believe that anyone would construe the liberties we enjoy in the United States as permission to introduce known poisons, insect body parts, rodent excretia, etc., into food, but that's exactly what many food manufactures, big and small, did. Furthermore, attempts to limit known poisons, etc., from the food supply were treated as outrageous examples of government overreach and hysterical attention-seeking. Of course, from this distance, the champions of such “freedoms” look like the villains they were, and their arguments ring extremely hollow.

    We can only hope that people will be around in a century to give today's analogs the ridicule they richly deserve. Now, of course, the stakes are higher. Instead of simply poisoning an entire country, today's villains have the opportunity to wreck the whole world.

    This book also reminds how difficult it is to do the right thing. There are many pitfalls. For example, the book's splendidly cantankerous hero, log-cabin-born chemist Harvey Washington Wiley, was a thorn in the side of corner-cutters and quacks of all varieties well into his ninth decade. However, like a lot of people in the do-gooding business, he occasionally loses focus of the main goal and wastes precious time and resources on fringe issues. Wiley, for example, was an enthusiastic consumer of bourbon and pursued a strict definition of what type of restorative should be allowed to bear that proud label. I have been known to favor an occasional snort myself, so I appreciate his enthusiasm, but I recognize bourbon is (as is often said here in The Nation's Capital) not the hill you want to die on. Defending the purity of milk, flour, canned goods, etc., brings a rosy glow of mother- and baby-protecting saintliness to your advocacy. Bourbon – not so much. There are only so many hours in a day, so many battles you can fight. Choose wisely.

    Speaking of choosing your battles: Wiley knew that his cause was just, and he was for much of his life the smartest person in the room. As a result, he tended to shoot off his mouth and (another Nation's Capital cliché coming up) not suffer fools gladly. Most of the time, people who really needed defending benefitted from this tendency, but when you are in the room with the President of the United States, it's often wise to choose your words carefully, even if (perhaps especially when) the President is a bit of a tool. In Wiley's case, he unnecessarily alienated the affections of Theodore Roosevelt. The consequences were not disastrous, but even Wiley himself admitted that it would have been wiser to keep his trap shut.

    Finally, remember:

    . It's natural enough, when long work results in success, to take a moment out to do a triumphant happy-dance, but remember while shaking what God gave you that your opponents are already looking for ways to roll back your improvements and undermine your good works. As happens similarly today, evil lawyerly minions who opposed Wiley managed to change the wording of legislation and rule-making so that strict guidelines were replaced with weasel words (e.g., “The guidelines now merely banned an undefined 'excessive' amount” (Kindle location 2430)). These words can then be litigated into meaninglessness, and/or cost pesky do-gooders a small mountain of legal fees.

    This is a fine book about a man whose life work benefitted others. In his lifetime, he received a certain amount of fame and monetary reward for his selflessness, but now he is largely forgotten, while names of murderous racists of the same period and earlier still grace our high schools and highways, and their graven images still infest our parks and public lands. Read this and remember someone worth remembering.

    I received a free electronic advance review copy of this book via

    and

    .

  • E

    Clearly well-researched, it's a look into the life of Dr. Harvey Wiley and also the precursor department to what we know as the FDA today. It's both fascinating and horrifying, the list of preservatives and agents that industry manufacturers considered common to put in their food for the masses. No one will be surprised that half of one chapter is devoted to Upton Sinclair and "The Jungle" but how many people know that the federal government put Coca-Cola on trial? I'd recommend this book to any

    Clearly well-researched, it's a look into the life of Dr. Harvey Wiley and also the precursor department to what we know as the FDA today. It's both fascinating and horrifying, the list of preservatives and agents that industry manufacturers considered common to put in their food for the masses. No one will be surprised that half of one chapter is devoted to Upton Sinclair and "The Jungle" but how many people know that the federal government put Coca-Cola on trial? I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoys history, chemistry or food.

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