A history of the late-19th-century crusade for food safety, led by a pioneering scientist who fought hard against 'chemically enhanced and deceptive food manufacturing practices,' some of which we still see today.
It sounds like the stuff of fiction, but according to Deborah Blum’s The Poison Squad, a detailed, highly readable history of food and drink regulation in the United States, adulterated foods proliferated in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th ... The Poison Squad is a granular look at the evolution of a particular set of regulations in the history of United States ... It’s helpful to remember that what seems obviously criminal today—like adding formaldehyde to milk—was disputed in the past. It’s also helpful to remember that the techniques used to push back against regulation 80 years ago are pretty much the same as today: the suppression of science and the unfortunate influence of lobbyists and money on politicians.
The devil has got hold of the food supply in this country.' This was the conclusion of Nebraska Senator Algernon Paddock, chairman of the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, in 1891. That year, he sponsored a bill that would become just one more failed legislative attempt to require food producers to label their products truthfully. Among the transgressions he was trying to stop were common practices like whitening milk with chalk, 'embalming' corned beef with formaldehyde, lacing fake whiskey with soap, and creating ground 'pepper' made of 'common floor sweepings.' It was not until 1906, after nearly two decades of testing, research, and political combat, that the country’s first Pure Food and Drug Act was signed into law, by President Theodore Roosevelt. As Deborah Blum writes in The Poison Squad if not for the perseverance of Harvey Wiley, a government chemist who’d grown up on an Indiana farm that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, it never would have happened.
After signing America’s first food-and-drug law in 1906, Teddy Roosevelt was quick to claim paternity. But in this compellingly detailed chronicle, Blum identifies Harvey Washington Wiley as the true father of the much-needed legislation. Readers follow this Purdue chemist, named the Department of Agriculture’s lead scientist, as he painstakingly documents the harmful effects of contaminants and toxins in the food supply and then fearlessly crusades for legal measures to protect the public ... Citing worrisome recent attacks on consumer-protection laws, Blum reminds readers of the twenty-first-century relevance of Wiley’s cause.