In the 19th century, milk containing substantial quantities of formaldehyde (yes, the stuff that preserves dead bodies) killed thousands of children every year. The rise of industrial chemistry meant the decline of food safety in the United States.
This wasn’t an oversight. Food manufacturers had quickly learned they could profit by selling harmful products with long shelf lives. Even modest regulations of the industry couldn’t get traction.
Then in 1883, a chemistry professor decided enough was enough. Armed with a $5,000 government grant, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley assembled a voluntary group of men known as the Poison Squad to test these products — by consuming them. Their motto? “Only the brave dare eat the fare.”
From Atlas Obscura:
As the Poison Squad ate meats and consumed drinks laced with increasing amounts of suspected poisons at their fine dining table, the public fell in love with their cause. Journalists breathlessly reported on their trials of these “young men of perfect physique and health.” Offensive yet popular minstrel shows added poison squad songs to their repertoire. Consumers across the country suddenly grew concerned about the safety of what they’d been eating.
By the time the Poison Squad disbanded, many members had become ill — one, fatally so — thoroughly substantiating Wiley’s concerns about food safety.
In 1906, the landmark Food and Drug Act — also known as “Dr. Wiley’s Law” — passed as a result of his work. It “prohibited the interstate transport of unlawful food and drugs under penalty of seizure of the questionable products and/or prosecution of the responsible parties.”
How much safer is our food now than it was a century ago?
Well, maybe not much. Here’s a take from The Atlantic:
In theory, Wiley’s success should ensure that all preservatives added to our food today are safe. But in reality, a legislative update in 1958 created a loophole that means that, today, we have no idea exactly how many additives are in our food or how safe they are.
We’ll discuss the impact of Wiley’s legacy on food regulation today with Deborah Blum, author of The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade For Food Safety At The Turn Of The Twentieth Century.
Deborah Blum, Director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT; author of “The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. @deborahblum
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