The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
By Deborah Blum
This is first and foremost a story about a chemist and his drive to expose the corrupt food industry as it knowingly profited from putting harmful chemicals and additives in everyday food. Along the way, author Deborah Blum shares the story of Harvey Wiley and the decades-long journey that would not have been possible without dedicated volunteers, a sympathetic media and the growing strength of the Progressive movement.
Throughout the 1880s, America was the Wild West for putting all kinds of chemicals in food. When chemist Harvey Wiley and his group of volunteers known as the Poison Squad began to prove how food manufacturers were literally killing thousands of people by fraudulently adulterating their processed foods with all types of chemicals and toxic metals to maximize profits, Wiley’s and the Squad’s collective efforts eventually led to passage of the first consumer protection law in 1906 (the Pure Food and Drugs Act).
Until the 1906 act’s passage, the United States was the only industrialized nation without any food safety regulations. The U.S. food lobby was simply too powerful—with lawyers and political contributions that successfully pushed back any attempt at regulation. Meanwhile, Britain already had a four-decade-old law on the books, an 1860 law that tried to limit the chemical adulteration of food after twenty people in a single town died by eating candy with arsenic-laced food coloring. In 1881, France banned the use of toxic salicylic acid in its wine, and Germany banned chemicals in its beer.
During this late nineteenth-century period, America was in the midst of an industrial revolution, with factories and railroads suddenly able to produce and distribute food across America like never before. As the migration of millions of factory workers caused cities to swell, the nation saw the rise of a new food manufacturing industry led by companies such as Heinz, Nabisco, Coca Cola and Campbell. By 1890, Chicago’s Union Stockyard was processing over nine million head of cattle each year as it perfected the assembly line that later would inspire Henry Ford when building his automobile factories.
Without refrigeration, the food industry turned to chemical companies like Dow and Monsanto to provide it with chemicals to preserve food, such as formaldehyde, sodium benzoate and borax—along with toxic metals such as copper sulfate to keep canned food colorful. But in 1881, while working in a lab at Purdue University, Harvey Wiley discovered that up to 90 percent of all honey and maple syrup was fake. Wiley immediately faced an industry backlash and smear campaign and was dismissed from Purdue for scientifically proving that these commercially-produced food products were mostly corn syrup pumped up with artificial additives to deceive consumers. (Does this sound familiar?)
Wiley went on to work at the Department of Agriculture, where he began to investigate how the dairy industry was deliberately adulterating and poisoning milk to increase profits. For example, the industry added water to dilute the milk; plaster and chalk to turn it white; formaldehyde to counter the sour taste; and pureed calf brain to give the top layer a yellowish cream color. This is to say nothing of how horrendously malnourished and mistreated the cows were in the first place, fed mostly on swill waste from local breweries. Other discoveries that Blum writes about in The Poison Squad focused on coffee (made primarily from sawdust, chicory and ash); pepper (mostly charcoal and coconut shell fillers); white bread flour (laced with aluminum); and Coca Cola (excess amounts of caffeine and cocaine).
After the powerful dairy industry was able to significantly weaken the Butter Act of 1886, Wiley realized that the only way to fight the corruption prevailing between Big Food and Congress was to broaden his message beyond fellow scientists and alert and educate the public. Shrewdly, Wiley hired a professional writer to translate his science into stories that began to resonate with the public. Not surprisingly, this was soon met with pushback from Wiley’s politically connected superiors at the Department of Agriculture, which began to stifle his findings.
Ironically, it was during the Spanish-American War in 1898—with reporting on the Army’s cover-up of “embalmed” meat being consumed by soldiers—that the broader public started to take more notice. Soon thereafter, newspapers began following Wiley with his human experiments on his volunteer “Poison Squad.” Even though the chemical and food industries continued to smear Wiley with their campaign of personal and public attacks, the Progressive Movement’s women’s groups and trade unions ultimately turned the tide and pressured vote-conscious politicians to finally take food safety seriously.
By 1906, these forces helped ensure the passage of the landmark Food and Drugs Act as well as the Meat Inspection Act. These additional influences included Wiley’s successful leveraging of the new female voting block to pressure President Teddy Roosevelt; the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which further outraged the public; and Henry J. Heinz’s decision to capitalize on the public’s growing food safety awareness by designing and supporting a “pure food” catsup.
Passing the historic 1906 legislation was an entirely different matter than enforcing the new regulations. Within just two years, industry lobbyists were able to create a new group of industry-friendly scientists who began to craft propaganda that cast doubt on Wiley and the Poison Squad. When those efforts failed, Wiley was isolated within the administration and effectively forced out. Undaunted, Wiley’s next move was to collaborate with the extremely popular Good Housekeeping magazine, where he was able to create the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to educate and encourage readers to keep the pressure on politicians and industry.
In the end, Wiley’s legacy is not just one man’s determination to pursue food safety, ingredient labeling and, ultimately, creation of the Food and Drug Administration. On a more practical level, the work of Wiley and the Poison Squad is the primary reason that one can go buy a gallon of milk today and not die!
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2020