When Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum was researching the history of chemical poisons, she stumbled on a description of “The Poison Squad,” an oddly named food safety experiment from the early 20th century. In the experiment, healthy young government employees were fed meals containing dangerous chemicals such as formaldehyde. Her curiosity was piqued by the “crazy carnival of fraud and fakery” that defined the American food system of the time and by Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, the charismatic and righteous chemist who created the experiment and made safeguarding the country’s food system from hidden poisons and other dangers his life’s work.
Blum has spent a decade researching and writing about Wiley, who was chief chemist at the US Department of Agriculture at a time when the food system was almost completely unregulated. Wiley’s unrelenting research had historic impact on food safety. The landmark 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act was known as “Dr. Wiley’s Law.” Although the scientist was widely celebrated in his day, he is less remembered now. Blum, who is director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, has written about Wiley and his historic work in “The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.”
Q. A Washington Post writer came up with the name “The Poison Squad.” How did Wiley describe it?
A. He called it the “hygienic table trial” experiment, which I really love because it’s so stuffy and Victorian. This experiment involved a couple dozen young men who would “dine dangerously.” The Agriculture Department set up a test kitchen and dining room and they provided all the volunteers for the experiment three free meals a day. They were really good meals. They hired a professional chef. The meals themselves had to be pristine for purposes of the experiment. The catch was, you get three free meals a day but half of you at any given moment are going to be adding to these beautiful meals capsules containing a food additive. It was the compound under study.
Q. What kinds of additives might they be eating?
A. So you would have to sit down every day and have your eggs and your toast and your farm-grown tomatoes and then take a capsule of formaldehyde, which was one of the things that they looked at. They did it in various doses, starting very low and then ratcheting it up. With formaldehyde they had to call the experiment. People got kind of sick. When they started, they tried to hide the additives. They would sneak borax in the butter or whatever.
Q. Did Wiley have a hard time recruiting people to participate?
A. They got applications from all over the country. People really didn’t know how dangerous these things were. There were no labels. You didn’t even know what was in your food. Toxicology was super new at this time and public health itself was a new idea. So there’s no safety testing. This experiment changed that because they got so much publicity and because you had these very healthy, athletic young men getting sick.
Q. How dangerous was the food system at this time?
A. That was probably the biggest surprise to me. You occasionally hear people today say, don’t eat anything your grandmother couldn’t pronounce. I’m like, really? Your grandparents were eating really bad stuff because there were no consumer safety regulations. Flour was routinely extended with gypsum, which we use in wallboard. Reddish spices like cinnamon would be brick dust. In some of the tests, spices were 100 percent adulterated. For dark spices like pepper, it could be anything from dyed sawdust to charred rope. They faked coffee beans even. Not just ground coffee, but coffee beans. You have no real refrigeration to speak of and in the case of milk, no pasteurization. You have horrible problems with food poisoning and bacterial growth and decomposition of dairy products and meat products. Manufacturers fell on these new preservatives. Formaldehyde is a great preservative if you’re trying to slow decomposition. It can actually can add a sweetish taste to a rotting product, so it tastes a little better.
Q. Wiley saw changes with passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. How did he feel about those improvements?
A. He had been laboring in the trenches of trying to get regulation for about a quarter of a century almost when the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act passed. Those two laws are really the first great consumer protection laws passed by the federal government. But they didn’t go as far as Wiley wanted.
Q. A century later, we still have problems with food safety.
A. But we’re not drinking formaldehyde milk. We have regulatory systems in place. We have inspections. There are protective measures in place that we don’t always appreciate as much as we should. Doing this book really reminded me why these rules are so important and what a thin line they are between us and the bad old days of the 19th century when cookbook authors had to warn their readers about fake food. We don’t want that again. We should hold on to all these advances.
Michael Floreak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.