Fancy a bit of chalk in your milk? Or maybe you’d prefer formaldehyde? With no national food safety laws, consumers in 19th Century America were routinely exposed to all manner of food adulteration and impurities: burnt rope masquerading as spice, ground insects as brown sugar, crushed stone as flour. In The Poison Squad Deborah Blum explores the crusade to end these sickening practices and the rise of the pure food movement in America.
The crusade’s somewhat unlikely hero was a chemistry professor from Indiana, Dr. Harvey Wiley. Zealous and uncompromising, Dr. Wiley became chief chemist at the Department of Agriculture after his expose of “honey” and “maple” syrup commissioned by the Indiana State Board of Health received national attention. A strong proponent of truth in labeling and food safety, Dr. Wiley devised some ingenious ways to test food additives including the so-called “Poison Squad” – a group of male civil servants who agreed to eat such things as borax and salicylic acid with their meals so Dr. Wiley could test their safety.
Dr. Wiley was also zealous in his belief that the public had every right to know what was in their food. He published bulletins for the public with his findings, gave talks across the nation, testified before congress and wrote a most charming piece of doggerel “I Wonder What’s In It” about the dangers lurking at the dinner table. It was these efforts, along with the tireless work of others across the nation who exposed food fakery, that led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.