The Poison Squad – Deborah Blum

While we eat, we cannot help asking, “What’s in it?”

This book is different from what I usually read but I received the copy from a friend and I learned so much! The biggest takeaway from this book is that given the opportunity, big businesses will screw people over tenfold unless someone holds them accountable, which as we know, doesn’t always happen. But, Dr. Harvey Wiley, a chemist in the Department of Agriculture worked tirelessly to keep food and beverages safe for consumption and was the leading proponent of food safety and honesty in labeling.

It’s shocking to me that a hundred years ago, adulterated food products were very common. Unhealthy or even poisonous additives stretch the volume of foods, making them devoid of nutrition, and even harmful. Sometimes the additives were used to prolong shelf life and sometimes the foods were deliberately mislabeled to trick consumers, which is crazy to think about! And, some foods were processed under very unsanitary conditions. It was a very big problem and it could be argued that the problem may still exist. This book is about the courage of Dr. Wiley who stood for food safety and honesty, above all else. He changed the way we regulate, and he was essential in changing the way we think about food, health, and consumer protection.


  1. By the end of the nineteenth century, the sweeping industrial revolution – and the rise of industrial chemistry – had also brought a host of new chemical additives and synthetic compounds into the food supply. Still unchecked by government regulation, basic safety testing, or even labeling requirements, food and drink manufacturers embraced the new materials with enthusiasm, mixing them into goods destined for the grocery store at sometimes lethal levels.
  2. The leaders of the pure-food movement united behind the idea that regulatory oversight was the only realistic answer. they’d seen many times that the country’s food processors and manufacturers felt little or no responsibility to protect the food supply, especially if it meant reducing profits.
  3. Formaldehyde, for instance, had been directly linked to deaths – notably of children drinking what came to be called embalmed milk – without any move by producers to discontinue the preservative’s use.
  4. It wasn’t until the Agriculture Department named Harvey Washington Wiley chief chemist in 1883 – recruiting him from a job at Purdue University – that the agency began methodically investigating food and drink fraud.
  5. Reports lead Wiley, in the early twentieth century, to test some of the most chemical additives on human volunteers, a series of experiments dubbed the “Poison Squad” studies by the nation’s newspapers.
  6. The demand for honest food should be heard in terms of making no denial. Wiley was not afraid to stand up for what he thought was right.
  7. The primary health concerns, the investigation found, derived from dyes used to improve the look of butter and margarine. With the use of a microscope and a little knowledge of what to look for, it was easy to tell if a spread was butter or margarine.
  8. When Wiley’s team did its own ground pepper analysis, the chemists found it difficult to list or even figure out everything that was in the mixtures: sawdust, cereal crumbs, gypsum, potato scraps, hemp seed, and to no astonishing extent powdered olive stones, walnut shells, almond shells, mineral matter, sand, soil, and more. The chemists mockingly called the spice “pepperette.” A new, inexpensive product labeled “pepper dust” they found to be literal dust, apparently common floor sweepings.
  9. French chemists successfully raised safety concerns earlier, in 1881 persuading their government to ban the use of salicylic acid as a preservative in wine. Germany also banned salicylic acid in both wine and beer made for domestic use; however, they did permit breweries to use the chemical in beer made for export to the US. After all, American authorities had shown no interest in regulating its use.
  10. In America, sadly, little attention seems to have been given to the use of salicylic acid as a preservative.
  11. The more people were informed about adulteration, the more they would demand untainted food. Such a consummation would be of great benefit to agriculture by relieving the farmer who sells pure foods from the competition with the adulterated articles.
  12. The canned meant smelled like formaldehyde when opened, the doctor said, and when cooked tasted of chemical preservatives. It was a national disgrace, to serve chemically tainted meat with no life or nourishment in it to men who had put their lives at risk for their country.
  13. Roosevelt stressed that the issue was that good men had been served poorly by their country, sent into war with provisions that were uneatable, unpalatable, unwholesome, utterly unsafe, and utterly unfit.
  14. The Chemistry Division’s Willard Bigelow had looked again at dishonesty in the wine industry, finding the usual preservatives, such as salicylic acid, swirling through many bottles. He’d also found many bottles that were labeled as wine but were merely factory-produced ethanol colored with coal-tar dyes and flavored with fruit peels.
  15. Wiley testified that about 5 percent of all foods were routinely adulterated, with the number being much higher – up to 90% in categories such as coffee, spices, and food products made for selling to the poor.
  16. Wiley emphasized that the biggest worry was for vulnerable populations: young children, people with chronic health problems, and the elderly. Those with a healthy stomach, he put it, were unlikely to be harmed by an occasional exposure to copper or zinc. The problem was that no one was sure who would be harmed.
  17. Wiley urged that the government invest in studying the health effects of such additives. If risks were clearly and methodically identified, then those compounds should be removed from all food and drink. He recommended that manufacturers be required to tell consumers, on labels, what was being mixed into their products.
  18. In order to prohibit a manufacturer from adding a chemical to foods, it was necessary to first prove that the chemical was dangerous to health.
  19. Were it as harmless as distilled water, there would no excuse to not let consumers know of its presence in their food and drinks.
  20. Ketchup was a soup of waste products from canners – pulp, skins, ripe tomatoes, green tomatoes, starch paste, coal-tar colors, and chemical preservatives, usually benzoate of soda or salicylic acid.
  21. It is pointed out that an important point of distinction between modern preservatives and the long-established ones – salt, sugar, vinegar, and wood-smoke – is that in the small amounts used they are almost without taste and odor, and their presence in a food product would not be noticed by the consumer unless specifically proclaimed.
  22. “Food,” the book began simply, “is anything that nourishes the body.”
  23. Germ theory: the understanding that microbes cause illness – still a cutting-edge idea in the nineteenth century.
  24. Many medicines were little more than flavored drinking alcohol.
  25. Even the most conservative woman, even the most traditional housewife had a stake in the fight in support of Wiley. It was shameful that “she” could not keep a “clean and wholesome house” or feed her children safely or buy untainted meat for the family dinner due to the troubled state of the American food supply.
  26. Down a long list, we might go, telling secrets of those who are putting dollars into their pockets by putting poisons into our foods.
  27. The American government would rather protect wealthy business interests than protect the American people.
  28. Many in the pure food movement saw that whiskey decision as a test of the government’s willingness to address the leveling issue even when powerful business interests opposed it.
  29. Acidic juices from tomatoes had caused toxic levels of lead to leach from pewter salad plates.
  30. Wiley added that food quality and safety represented not only good science but also moral decision-making.
  31. The wealthy, Wiley pointed out, could easily afford fresh food and well-made condiments. The trade-in cheap, chemically enhanced imitations catered to the poor. if the country could work to standardize good food, then it also would be promoting good health for all.
  32. Whenever food is debased in order to make it cheap, the laboring man pays more for any given nourishment than the rich man does who buys the pure food.
  33. The use of formaldehyde in food is never justified.
  34. An analysis found that Coca Cream contained saccharin, benzoic acid, cocaine, and caffeine; and Pepsette, which advertised itself as a pepsin-based, fruit-flavored soft drink, contained no pepsin at all but plenty of cocaine.
  35. Coca-Cola had two popular nicknames. One was “dope and the other was “Coke,” and both referred, to their well-known stimulant effects. That had been true when it contained cocaine and it was true now.
  36. In late April, just three weeks after the Coca-Cola trial ended, the Agriculture Department announced that starting in July 1911, all foods containing saccharin would be considered adulterated and therefore subject to prosecution.
  37. Without a legal requirement – explicit or implied – for companies to safety-test their products in advance of selling them to the public, the consumer safety net would only continue to fray.
  38. Saccharin is an artificial sweetener with effectively no food energy. It is about 300–400 times as sweet as sucrose but has a bitter or metallic aftertaste, especially at high concentrations. Saccharin is used to sweeten products such as drinks, candies, cookies, and medicines.
  39. The department used its authority to formally require saccharin to be listed as an ingredient on product labels, a measure that proved surprisingly effective in limiting its use. Many food companies, rather than reveal that they were surreptitiously using saccharin, removed it from their products.
  40. More than one hundred people – many of them children – died in late 1937, poisoned by cough syrup sweetened with the solvent diethylene glycol (often found in antifreeze).
  41. A 1956 decision by the FDA to ban some of the old-coal tar dyes arose from the sickening of children by Halloween candy that contained unsafe levels of orange and red coloring agents.
  42. A 1976 law authorizing the agency to regular medical devices was passed after some 200,000 women reported injuries from an intrauterine birth control device called Dalkon Shield.
  43. If we pay attention, we see signs of protection every day, in large ways and small. Food labels, for instance, contain a wealth of information about ingredients and nutrition – not as much as some of us might want, but more than many of us will ever take the time to read.
  44. New products are safety-tested. Food poisoning outbreaks are monitored and traced; tainted products are subject to recall; food and drug manufacturers who cause harm can be criminally prosecuted.
  45. The fight for consumer protection may never end. But if it does, if that long-awaited final victory is achieved, it will be because we, like Wiley, refused to give up.
The real evil of food adulteration is the deception to the consumer. Yes, we are still fighting for pure food. But, let us recognize that we've come a wonderfully long way from unregulated food, drink, and drug horrors of the nineteeth century.
*I take no credit for any of these points.

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