Deborah Blum's The Poison Squad is actually a prequel to her The Poisoner's Handbook — both a book and an online documentary.1 While the latter was set in the 1920s, the former is staged at the turn of the century. Beginning in 1844 and concluding in 1938, Blum recounts the life and work of Harvey Washington Wiley, the first and longest running Chief Chemist for the Agriculture Department, precursor of today's FDA and EPA (Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency) in the United States. Primarily a historical account, chemistry teachers will discover added value in reading about the chemical adulterations and preservatives used in abundance during the time. However, Blum writes for a general audience, and her writing is detailed and mesmerizing. Her thoroughness is reflected in some 25 pages of small-font notes mostly gleaned from archival writings.
The Poison Squad is cleverly organized. In addition to fifteen chapters in two parts, an introduction and epilogue, Blum begins with two unique items. The first is an 1899 poem by the same Harvey Wiley entitled, "I Wonder What's In It". This poem pointedly mocks the state of the food industry and the abundance of adulterations. As a further reminder, each chapter is introduced with a snippet of this poem. The second addition is a "Cast of Characters". This, as with a play, lists the actors and their relevance to the history in alphabetical order. After the reader finishes the book, this list serves as a reminder of those who helped and those who attempted to hinder the movement toward safer food.
In her introduction, Blum lays out the extent of adulterations rampant in the American food industry in the late 1800s. Once chemical preservatives were added to the fray, food safety only worsened. This was the food our grandparents and great-grandparents purchased! And it is disgustingly shocking! Thus the stage was set for Harvey Wiley.
Part one describes in detail the various adulterations, the widespread use of chemical preservatives and questionable food processes. Manufacturers looked for the cheapest way to make their product to ensure the highest profits. Neither the safety of their product nor the health of the general public ever entered the equation. Indeed, at the time no onus was on manufacturers to guarantee the safety of their products. While Wiley was meticulously uncovering these dangers, his greatest challenge was fighting the manufacturing establishment and his own government. Blum pulls no punches and describes, in literally sickening detail, the dishonesty and depravity of the food manufacturing industry. However, not all manufacturers were despicable. The H.J. Heinz Company demonstrated that it was possible to produce safe and wholesome products at just about the same cost with no chemical additives or preservatives. But Heinz's attitude was rare in the US. If you are contemplating becoming vegetarian, you only need to read about the conditions at Chicago meat packing plants to tip the scales! Nauseating doesn't come close!
Part two introduces the "poison squad", a brainchild of Wiley, set up to identify which additives were harmful to people. He selected a group of volunteers to eat meals prepared by his department with carefully measured doses of one preservative. He vigilantly recorded the state of health of his “guinea pigs” and used the data to fight for their removal. In vivid detail Blum outlines the political backstabbing, the backroom deals and partisan politics Wiley fought to bring these hazards to public attention and attempted to have them outlawed. Blum’s description of the trials against Coca Cola and Monsanto are fascinating. Wiley’s crowning achievement was the 1906 passing of the Food and Drug Act, the first attempt to get manufacturers to clean up their businesses.
But, alas for Wiley and indeed for all citizens, the state of American politics literally poisoned the bill and what it had hoped to provide. Blum exposes the challenges different presidents posed, depending on whether they were Republican or Democrat. Adding to these challenges was the fact that there are two government legislative branches in the US; if one passed a law, the other could sit on it and fail to enact it. Voting by senators and representatives was influenced, and sometimes guaranteed, by the deep pockets of the manufacturers. In many respects it is a wonder any laws were passed and any clean up was accomplished. But Wiley persevered for almost 30 years and had his share of victories as well as defeats. That perseverance, as well as the efforts by numerous others, has produced many of the safeguards we have today.
As Blum notes in her epilogue, government action is often a "knee-jerk" response to an issue in the marketplace. For example, only after the death of dozens of children in 1938 was ethylene glycol — common antifreeze, which was a legal additive at the time — removed from cough syrups! Today, with numerous watchdog groups available, sometimes the marketplace has to actually fight the government!2
Do we still wonder what's in it? If we do, at least we have ingredients and nutritional information on every package label (now even including calories) for us to devour prior to the food. This was something Wiley desperately fought for and which his opponents railed against. But there are still questions and many wonder. Arguments over organic3 and GMO foods abound. Rarely a day goes by without some mention of a recall4-7, the most recent being e-coli in romaine lettuce8 or news articles on something tainted or dangerous to our health.9-10 The Poison Squad is an eye-opener into the state of food manufacturing at the turn of the century. It is historically accurate, incredibly informative, and easy to read and understand. For the chemistry teacher there is a wealth of applications, such as the heavy metal poisons used as preservatives and colouring agents. Even Wiley's poem is an excellent discussion starter. However, after reading The Poison Squad and learning how processed meats, butter, jams and ketchup were made a little over 100 years ago, your perception of these products will definitely be coloured. You too will wonder, just as Wiley did!