The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Deborah Blum

The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum largely focuses on Dr. Wiley, a chemist who worked for the U.S. government in the Department of Agriculture for decades while he campaigned for a pure food movement. To be clear, he doesn’t mean pure food the way people mean “clean eating.” Pure food is an item that is what it says it is. If I buy a bag of ground coffee, it should be ground coffee. Not some ground coffee cut with sawdust, wheat, and dandelion seeds. If I buy milk, it shouldn’t have the cream removed off the top and replaced with pureed calf brains, water added to stretch the product (and chalk to keep the white color). These are two examples Blum uses (repeatedly, tirelessly) in The Poison Squad.

The book opens interestingly enough with the line “We tend these days to cast a romantic glow over the foods of our forefathers.” It’s a good hook — modern eaters bemoan foods with more than a couple of ingredients, and scowl at the sugar added to nearly everything (low-fat yogurt, spaghetti sauce, canned beans, oatmeal). Wasn’t food just, well, more natural back in nana’s time? No, it wasn’t.

The Food and Drug Administration was started by President Lincoln, but didn’t do much until Dr. Wiley got involved in 1883. He commenced with what the newspapers dubbed “the poison squad,” a group of twelve strapping young men with strong constitutions who would eat foods that had additives, usually preservatives used at the time, in specific doses. Every trial seemed to prove that what Americans ate on the regular was making them sick. The Food and Drug Act doesn’t pass until 1906. Very little was changed due to vague wording (what does “unfit for food” mean?), so Dr. Wiley continued to use his voice and fight government bureaucrats and big industries like dairy, places making canned goods, and Coca Cola.

After teaching rhetoric to college students for eleven years, it’s nearly impossible for me to sit back and simply “enjoy” a work of nonfiction. I’m questioning everything from the sources to the diction. To me, it’s clear that Deborah Blum admires Dr. Wiley and wants readers to root for him, going so far as thanking him in the epilogue. However, Wiley’s opponents, including his boss, acknowledge that the more time goes on Wiley’s focus shifts to social activism, saying that certain additives should be banned from food and drink before he has the science to back it up. At other times, Wiley is so fastidious with his definitions that his opponents proclaim that bakers will soon be in trouble if they sell Lady Fingers, for fear that the production doesn’t include 100% female digits.

Blum’s writing suggests I should feel no hesitation about supporting Wiley as a tireless hero. She uses the word “enemy” to describe Wiley’s boss, who was worried that Wiley had lost sight of unbiased scientific research. She uses the most dramatic examples to support her claims about needing government intervention to assure safe food and drink:

Dairies near Indianapolis weren’t bothering with commercially prepared formulas like Preservaline. They were simply pouring straight formaldehyde into rotting milk. Then they sold it on the cheap to poor families and to budget-strapped facilities like orphanages. The practice had been linked to the deaths of more than two dozen children in Indianapolis orphanages.

Of course I feel bad the poor people and orphans affected by bad business practices, but at the time all Americans who shopped in grocery stores or bought milk that wasn’t directly from a small farm run by an ethical farmer were affected by bad business practices. Regardless of who they are, everyone has a right to get the item they pay for, and not an altered or mislabeled version. Twice, Blum uses orphans to invoke the reader’s pathos and side with Dr. Wiley.

More red flags went up when I read that Dr. Wiley grew tired of his boss and whomever was President of the United States at the time thwarting his efforts, so he takes a more lucrative job with the magazine Good Housekeeping, writing articles after being promised no one could edit his work in any way. Wiley notes that he can write whatever he thinks is best for Americans and have it published, including food and beverages with the now-prestigious Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

Though he may recommend products with no ill intent, Blum fails to provide alternate sources that may reasonably question Wiley or his work. She lets readers assume that businesses are greedy, the government is in on it, and Wiley is a hero without giving an unbiased look at real objections businesses may have, such as the fact that many of the additives Wiley was against had not been tested to prove they were unsafe, and if they were, what dose is unsafe consumption.

Much of The Poison Squad felt repetitive to me: lists of which foods and additives that were causing health problems, which people objected to Wiley and why, heading to court and winning a small battle only to be called to court again to be re-tried, and Wiley arguing with a boss he finds obstructionist. A small time period is covered in the chapters, yet readers learn little of American consumers, why the sitting U.S. president would reasonably oppose food and beverage protection bills, and the details of the poison squad tests — these are largely summarized despite the title leading readers to think they would be the focus.

Blum teased me by summarizing the help women’s groups supplied to Dr. Wiley and mentions that Wiley’s wife became a famous suffragist at the time. Without those women protesting, organizing, and letter writing, Wiley’s first bill in 1906 likely would not have passed, Blum suggests. Their story is the one I wanted to hear. The Poison Squad is possibly a work for those interested in chemistry and legal affairs than I am and would best be further rhetorically analyzed by such a reader.

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21 comments

  1. Interesting concept but sad the execution wasn’t the best. The topic is one of interest to me because I have major food intolerances and a corn allergy and I keep getting “poisoned” every single time I eat food prepared by someone who isn’t the first mate. We are still trying to determine what foods I can eat even over a year later. Of course the science isn’t really there yet either. The newest research into gut health is all sorts of contradictory. There is much left to learn. But really it would be nice if we could know exactly what was in our processed food without all the odd sounding names and additives. And while the government does regulate food, even now people try to get around it. I remember a huge mess with imported honey. Also truffles aren’t always truffles. And just look at the mess that health supplements has become. Laws are good except without the scientists to test it and the measures to reinforce it, they don’t always work. Excellent review matey. I will not be reading this one.
    x The Captain

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    • Thanks, Cap! Although I did not enjoy this book, it did make me pause and read the ingredients on the foods I buy. I’ve read labels for a long time now, but have I really been, like, awake while doing it? I typically read for fat and sugar content, as both affect me negatively if I have too much (god, I miss pizza). When I got a can of beans, I looked at the ingredients thinking it would say “beans” and maybe something to preserve the color or freshness. I was surprised to see that though it was a short list, there was sugar. Why TF did they add sugar? I’m not going to lie, there is a part of me that totally believes there is a conspiracy to get sugar into everything to make us want it more. I learned years ago that pasta sauce (which should be savory) has as much sugar per serving as Oreos per serving.

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    • I dunno, I think some people are terribly happy to find nonfiction that confirms what a person already believes. It’s comforting, like a blanket. You start to think, “OH, thank goodness; I’m not crazy.” I know I can fall victim to it, too, but try to be reasonable. I do know that I talked to a woman with a PhD in psychology who once told me that our brains aren’t even designed to take in all the news and information we get in a globalized world. If tsunami killed a bunch of people in Indian 200 years ago, you wouldn’t know about it in the U.S., for example.

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  2. I think the starting point for dealing with any processed food is that the profit motive always triumphs over health or purity. And the starting point for dealing with government regulation is that laws, however attractive they are on the surface, are written to favour manufacturers (corporate donors) rather than consumers, and in any case decades of neo-liberalism has entirely destroyed any notion of impartial inspection services.

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    • ” decades of neo-liberalism has entirely destroyed any notion of impartial inspection services.” << What do you mean?

      I do agree that corporations are the right hand of the government and that no matter what we do, we'll never have anything foodie in favor of the consumer. I know organic and small farmers are trying to fight back, but access to them is challenging for most people.

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      • Quality inspections in Australia at least but I think throughout the Anglosphere have been entirely privatised, so that inspectors who give adverse reports stop being employed. In Sydney recently three new high-rises have started to fall down because the builders chose to employ the most compliant inspector. It’s the same story with quality inspectors in meat works. Shop and restaurant hygiene inspections have entirely gone by the board. And so on and so on …

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        • I see what you mean. I guess in the U.S. we probably wouldn’t call that neo-liberal. It sounds more like shoddy business men who are using money to get what they want, which are associated with conservatives.

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    • And we’re still not all the way in good territory — that’s worrisome, too! Someone else mentioned in the comments the way vitamins and “health” stores like GNC are completely unregulated. They have to say their products are not tested or regulated by the FDA, but so many people are anti-government right now that they might see that as a positive. It’s also uncommon for prescription medication to be advertised, but in the U.S. we don’t have laws against it.

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  3. I think the subject matter is interesting enough to me that I might enjoy this despite the bias – I am fascinated by the history of regulation, especially related to human health. Your caveats mean it isn’t too high up on the TBR, though.

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    • People on Goodreads loved this book, so maybe it just wasn’t for me. Blum also wrote a book called The Poisoner’s Handbook that readers love, though the focus is more on murder than food regulation.

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