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

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A New York Times Notable Book From Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times-bestselling author Deborah Blum, the dramatic true story of how food was made safe in the United States and the heroes, led by the inimitable Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who fought for change By the end of nineteenth century, food was dangerous. Lethal, even. "Milk" might contain formaldehyde, mo A New York Times Notable Book From Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times-bestselling author Deborah Blum, the dramatic true story of how food was made safe in the United States and the heroes, led by the inimitable Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who fought for change By the end of nineteenth century, food was dangerous. Lethal, even. "Milk" might contain formaldehyde, most often used to embalm corpses. Decaying meat was preserved with both salicylic acid, a pharmaceutical chemical, and borax, a compound first identified as a cleaning product. This was not by accident; food manufacturers had rushed to embrace the rise of industrial chemistry, and were knowingly selling harmful products. Unchecked by government regulation, basic safety, or even labelling requirements, they put profit before the health of their customers. By some estimates, in New York City alone, thousands of children were killed by "embalmed milk" every year. Citizens--activists, journalists, scientists, and women's groups--began agitating for change. But even as protective measures were enacted in Europe, American corporations blocked even modest regulations. Then, in 1883, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemistry professor from Purdue University, was named chief chemist of the agriculture department, and the agency began methodically investigating food and drink fraud, even conducting shocking human tests on groups of young men who came to be known as, "The Poison Squad." Over the next thirty years, a titanic struggle took place, with the courageous and fascinating Dr. Wiley campaigning indefatigably for food safety and consumer protection. Together with a gallant cast, including the muckraking reporter Upton Sinclair, whose fiction revealed the horrific truth about the Chicago stockyards; Fannie Farmer, then the most famous cookbook author in the country; and Henry J. Heinz, one of the few food producers who actively advocated for pure food, Dr. Wiley changed history. When the landmark 1906 Food and Drug Act was finally passed, it was known across the land, as "Dr. Wiley's Law." Blum brings to life this timeless and hugely satisfying "David and Goliath" tale with righteous verve and style, driving home the moral imperative of confronting corporate greed and government corruption with a bracing clarity, which speaks resoundingly to the enormous social and political challenges we face today.


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A New York Times Notable Book From Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times-bestselling author Deborah Blum, the dramatic true story of how food was made safe in the United States and the heroes, led by the inimitable Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who fought for change By the end of nineteenth century, food was dangerous. Lethal, even. "Milk" might contain formaldehyde, mo A New York Times Notable Book From Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times-bestselling author Deborah Blum, the dramatic true story of how food was made safe in the United States and the heroes, led by the inimitable Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who fought for change By the end of nineteenth century, food was dangerous. Lethal, even. "Milk" might contain formaldehyde, most often used to embalm corpses. Decaying meat was preserved with both salicylic acid, a pharmaceutical chemical, and borax, a compound first identified as a cleaning product. This was not by accident; food manufacturers had rushed to embrace the rise of industrial chemistry, and were knowingly selling harmful products. Unchecked by government regulation, basic safety, or even labelling requirements, they put profit before the health of their customers. By some estimates, in New York City alone, thousands of children were killed by "embalmed milk" every year. Citizens--activists, journalists, scientists, and women's groups--began agitating for change. But even as protective measures were enacted in Europe, American corporations blocked even modest regulations. Then, in 1883, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemistry professor from Purdue University, was named chief chemist of the agriculture department, and the agency began methodically investigating food and drink fraud, even conducting shocking human tests on groups of young men who came to be known as, "The Poison Squad." Over the next thirty years, a titanic struggle took place, with the courageous and fascinating Dr. Wiley campaigning indefatigably for food safety and consumer protection. Together with a gallant cast, including the muckraking reporter Upton Sinclair, whose fiction revealed the horrific truth about the Chicago stockyards; Fannie Farmer, then the most famous cookbook author in the country; and Henry J. Heinz, one of the few food producers who actively advocated for pure food, Dr. Wiley changed history. When the landmark 1906 Food and Drug Act was finally passed, it was known across the land, as "Dr. Wiley's Law." Blum brings to life this timeless and hugely satisfying "David and Goliath" tale with righteous verve and style, driving home the moral imperative of confronting corporate greed and government corruption with a bracing clarity, which speaks resoundingly to the enormous social and political challenges we face today.

30 review for The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

  1. 4 out of 5

    Brenda Ayala

    Dude. The Industrial Revolution, for all its major leaps toward with invention and innovation, definitely fucked over some people. Like a lot of people. The biggest take away from this nonfiction book is that given the opportunity, big business will screw us over tenfold unless someone holds them accountable. They put copper, lead, formaldehyde and so much more in our food. Kids died from drinking milk. That’s so mind boggling that I had to reread the paragraphs focused on that. Paragraphs, plural, Dude. The Industrial Revolution, for all its major leaps toward with invention and innovation, definitely fucked over some people. Like a lot of people. The biggest take away from this nonfiction book is that given the opportunity, big business will screw us over tenfold unless someone holds them accountable. They put copper, lead, formaldehyde and so much more in our food. Kids died from drinking milk. That’s so mind boggling that I had to reread the paragraphs focused on that. Paragraphs, plural, because it HAPPENED MORE THAN ONCE OVER SEVERAL YEARS. This author does an amazing job of compiling all of the information together in a cohesive form. There’s a inordinate amount of information within these pages and while it can get a bit dense and repetitive, it never lost my interest. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to read it and I’m going to make damn sure everybody knows to read it. FIGHT THE MAN! (Or just hold corporations like Coca-Cola accountable)

  2. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    During his successful 2016 campaign for the White House, Trump promised to have his cabinet "submit a list of every wasteful and unnecessary regulation which kills jobs, and which does not improve public safety, and eliminate them." His FDA commission, Scott Gottlieb, followed that promise by saying what while he recognizes the importance of food safety legislation he wants to "strike the right balance" in its implementation. Consumer groups now anticipate delayed and reduced protections from ag During his successful 2016 campaign for the White House, Trump promised to have his cabinet "submit a list of every wasteful and unnecessary regulation which kills jobs, and which does not improve public safety, and eliminate them." His FDA commission, Scott Gottlieb, followed that promise by saying what while he recognizes the importance of food safety legislation he wants to "strike the right balance" in its implementation. Consumer groups now anticipate delayed and reduced protections from agencies facing deep budget cuts. The Earthjustice Institute has warned of the "Trump administration's willingness to accommodate even unfounded and partial industry opposition to the detriment of the health and welfare of people and families across the country." Such a warning, with its mix of theatrical anger and genuine dismay could have been written, almost word for word, by Harvey Washington Wiley more than a century ago. The sense of deja vu, echoing down the years, should remind us of the ways that food safety practices have dramatically changed in this country--and of the ways they have changed hardly at all. (The Poison Squad, pg. 289) I found this book while browsing in my local library and picked it up because public health is always an interesting topic to me. It took me a little while to get started on this book, but once I did I could hardly put it down. The Poison Squad follows Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley in his career primarily as chief chemist for the Department of Agriculture, explains how his research on altered and deliberately unlabeled/mislabeled products came to shape his advocacy for safe and pure (or, at the very least, properly labeled) food and drink, and illustrates for readers the parallels between the complaints and schemes of business of decades ago and the complaints and schemes of business today. Just like the Earthjustice statement could have been written by Dr. Wiley, The Poison Squad is littered with quotations from 19th and 20th century businessmen, their lawyers, and the their lobbyists, that could be written - word for word - by the industry-at-any-cost interests of today. I knew about a couple of the cases cited in the text - the poisoning of children with milk that had been 'preserved' with formaldehyde, the mass poisoning of mainly children by Elixir Sulfanilamide - but not the vast majority. Well written, informative, and very, very relevant, The Poison Squad was an amazing book and it is one that I would highly recommend. However, given that a good many of the descriptions are graphic, I have one caveat: I would try not to recommend The Poison Squad to someone who didn't have at least an ok tolerance for nauseating descriptions, the likes of which are extremely likely to cause intense revulsion at the very idea of some things once being considered 'food.' For example: Doctors continued to worry over continued reports of "grocer's itch," a side effect of the deceptive practice of grinding up insects and passing the result off as brown sugar. Sometimes live lice survived the process. (The Poison Squad, pg. 66) The secretary [of agriculture, Wilson] also had endorsed a November decision to seize fifty-two industrial-sized cans of eggs preserved in a 2 percent solution of boracic acid. The Hipolite Egg Company of St. Louis sold these huge cans--forty-two pounds each--to the baking industry at a price much lower than fresh eggs. Hipolite specialized in salvaging dirty, cracked, and even rotting eggs for use in breads and cakes. The company was particularly known for using "spots" (decomposing eggs); mixing their contents into a thick, homogeneous mass; using boracic acid, a by-product of borax [the cleaning product also used for pest control] to halt further decomposition; and then selling the eggy soup by the can. (The Poison Squad, pg. 203) New options [for coloring agents] arose with synthetic dyes made from coal tars--dense, chemically complex residues left over the processing of coal...The new dyes were durable, cheap, and potent--and rapidly adopted by industrial processors of everything from fabric to food. (The Poison Squad, pg. 229) The organizers [of the pure food exhibit] decided to exhibit two thousand different brands presenting tainted food and drink sold in the United States. ...Minnesota and South Dakota sent sheets of silk and wool, each five feet square, brilliantly colored with coal-tar dyes extracted from a variety of strawberry syrups, ketchup, jams and jellies, and red wine. Michigan sent samples of lemon extract in which the manufacturer had used cheap but deadly wood alcohol as a base. Illinois provided more faked extracts, such as "vanilla" made only of alcohol and brown food coloring...Participating states provided forty brands of ketchup, labeled as a tomato product, that were mostly stewed pumpkin rind dyed red, and some fifty brands of baking powder that were largely well-ground chalk enhanced by aluminum compounds. To the fury of food industry executives, the fair's head of publicity, Mark Bennett, send out a news release titled "Lessons in Food Poisoning," which noted: "If you want to have your faith in mankind rather rudely shaken, take the time to look about in the exhibit of the State Food Commissioners in the south end of the Palace of Agriculture." (The Poison Squad, pg. 115) This is a small sampling of just what I could easily find and could be easily understood from a relatively short quote. I personally think the text is all the better for including these details; they do not allow industry malpractice and unethical behavior to hide behind the veneer of polite wording. I think it is necessary the same way that Upton Sinclair's graphic descriptions of the Chicago stockyards and packing plants were necessary (The Jungle, as well as other information about it and the yards themselves are also quoted, by the way). But, because I know not everyone has the same opinion as me, I would try to take into account personal taste when making - or choosing not to make - a recommendation.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    Fascinating but, at the same time, deeply disturbing, account of the decades-long effort by Dr. Harvey Wiley, a chemist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the beginning of the 20th century, to protect consumers from adulterated food and drugs. A hundred years ago, Dr. Wiley's name was probably familiar to most Americans. My thanks to author Deborah Blum for reminding us of his important contributions, which continue to improve our lives today.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jillian Doherty

    Page turning and solicitous! This incredible story widens the view of what we think we know about how our nation’s food. From flood shavings in the chowder, to exactly how much plaster makes sour milk looks just right again – this book is for anyone who loves reading about history that you can’t believe is true. Where the Food Explorer took us on a wild ride, discovering where our food came from – this wowzers of a history will make you sooooo glad we had Dr. Wiley on our side ensuring we aren’t Page turning and solicitous! This incredible story widens the view of what we think we know about how our nation’s food. From flood shavings in the chowder, to exactly how much plaster makes sour milk looks just right again – this book is for anyone who loves reading about history that you can’t believe is true. Where the Food Explorer took us on a wild ride, discovering where our food came from – this wowzers of a history will make you sooooo glad we had Dr. Wiley on our side ensuring we aren’t poisoned daily! Galley borrowed from the publisher.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Claudia

    Today, when talking about the safety of our food, we are concerned with MSG; high-fructose corn syrup; trans fats, synthetic sweeteners, artificial colors among others. In the late 1800's into the early years of the twentieth century, you would have been concerned more about arsenic, formaldehyde (yes, embalming fluid); salicylic acid, copper sulfate, and borax being used as preservatives. Coal-tar dyes to make the food appear fresh and bright. Saccharin to replace the more expensive sugar. Acet Today, when talking about the safety of our food, we are concerned with MSG; high-fructose corn syrup; trans fats, synthetic sweeteners, artificial colors among others. In the late 1800's into the early years of the twentieth century, you would have been concerned more about arsenic, formaldehyde (yes, embalming fluid); salicylic acid, copper sulfate, and borax being used as preservatives. Coal-tar dyes to make the food appear fresh and bright. Saccharin to replace the more expensive sugar. Acetic acid replacing lemon juice. So-called neutral spirits colored, flavored and called whiskey. Nitrites to bleach flour to brilliant whiteness. Lead and a variety of minerals in candy. It is suspected that hundreds if not thousands of young children were killed by milk that was more chemical than dairy - the recipe could be a pint of water to each quart of milk after the cream was skimmed off. Add a bit of chalk or plaster of paris for whitening. Molasses to give it a golden color and to replace the cream, a squirt of something that may include pureed calf brains. And don't forget the formaldehyde! Yummy, isn't it? You don't want to know what could be in butter. Food manufacturers were certainly inventive with their additives. Sometimes the only thing missing in the product was what it was advertised and sold as. Of course, what it could include was mashed fruit and vegetable leavings. Charred rope. Sawdust. Crushed nut shells, ground insects and floor sweepings of all kinds. This book is about Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemist in the employ of the federal Department of Agriculture (the infant FDA) and his fight to eliminate toxic minerals and chemicals from the foods available to the American people. The same chemicals/additives, which were forbidden for use in Europe and Canada, flooded American food. And it was a long, exhausting fight. Utilizing the resources available, Wiley would create his 'poison squads' which would be volunteers who would take in the chemical investigated over a period of time and record any negative impacts on their health. The data would be analyzed and the report released to the public. Of course, the manufacturers fought hard and long. They were all about using cheaper materials instead of authentic, pure food products. Most were certainly were not willing to make the product a few cents more expensive but without toxic additives. But Dr. Wiley had his supporters as well - the AMA, women's groups, several Congressmen and Senators, various state-level secretaries of agriculture, newspaper journalists especially after the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle which blew the lid off the meatpacking industry of Chicago. Fanny Farmer and her famous cookbook. H.J. Heinz that proved that food could be uncontaminated, tasty and appealing to the buying public. 1906 saw the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act but food industry lobbyists managed to convince industry-friendly politicians to basically weaken and gut the law. But it was a start and Dr. Wiley eventually lost his neutrality in his crusade for unadulterated and safe food which caused tension within the Department of Agriculture. Taking on Coca Cola for their cocaine and caffeine. Taking on the whiskey manufacturers. Saccharin and bread whitening agents. In the end, Dr. Wiley felt the best decision for him and his family was to continue his crusade through a job offered by Good Housekeeping magazine. He never saw the modified Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 which corrected the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Unfortunately, it took the death of more than a 100 people who were poisoned and killed by cough syrup sweetened by antifreeze. This is a vital book to read. Not just because of how far food safety has advanced over the years but how much more work needs to be done. Additional laws and updates to food and drug regulation over the years is in danger from our current administration as Trump promised to eliminate every unnecessary regulation and it seems that the FDA and its work is once again under fire. Only time will tell if it survives or is stripped of its authority and dominion.

  6. 4 out of 5

    David

    It is heartening to see this excellent new history getting favorable attention on the radio, in newspapers, in online journals, and in both food blogs and science blogs. In addition, there are already many reviews here on Goodreads that adequately summarize and elaborate on this book's fine qualities, so I thought I would allow myself the freedom to write a few words about what the century-old struggle for safer food in the US has to say about current unpleasantness. There are many similarities. I It is heartening to see this excellent new history getting favorable attention on the radio, in newspapers, in online journals, and in both food blogs and science blogs. In addition, there are already many reviews here on Goodreads that adequately summarize and elaborate on this book's fine qualities, so I thought I would allow myself the freedom to write a few words about what the century-old struggle for safer food in the US has to say about current unpleasantness. There are many similarities. It's hard to believe that anyone would construe the liberties we enjoy in the United States as permission to introduce known poisons, insect body parts, rodent excretia, etc., into food, but that's exactly what many food manufactures, big and small, did. Furthermore, attempts to limit known poisons, etc., from the food supply were treated as outrageous examples of government overreach and hysterical attention-seeking. Of course, from this distance, the champions of such “freedoms” look like the villains they were, and their arguments ring extremely hollow. We can only hope that people will be around in a century to give today's analogs the ridicule they richly deserve. Now, of course, the stakes are higher. Instead of simply poisoning an entire country, today's villains have the opportunity to wreck the whole world. This book also reminds how difficult it is to do the right thing. There are many pitfalls. For example, the book's splendidly cantankerous hero, log-cabin-born chemist Harvey Washington Wiley, was a thorn in the side of corner-cutters and quacks of all varieties well into his ninth decade. However, like a lot of people in the do-gooding business, he occasionally loses focus of the main goal and wastes precious time and resources on fringe issues. Wiley, for example, was an enthusiastic consumer of bourbon and pursued a strict definition of what type of restorative should be allowed to bear that proud label. I have been known to favor an occasional snort myself, so I appreciate his enthusiasm, but I recognize bourbon is (as is often said here in The Nation's Capital) not the hill you want to die on. Defending the purity of milk, flour, canned goods, etc., brings a rosy glow of mother- and baby-protecting saintliness to your advocacy. Bourbon – not so much. There are only so many hours in a day, so many battles you can fight. Choose wisely. Speaking of choosing your battles: Wiley knew that his cause was just, and he was for much of his life the smartest person in the room. As a result, he tended to shoot off his mouth and (another Nation's Capital cliché coming up) not suffer fools gladly. Most of the time, people who really needed defending benefitted from this tendency, but when you are in the room with the President of the United States, it's often wise to choose your words carefully, even if (perhaps especially when) the President is a bit of a tool. In Wiley's case, he unnecessarily alienated the affections of Theodore Roosevelt. The consequences were not disastrous, but even Wiley himself admitted that it would have been wiser to keep his trap shut. Finally, remember: the struggle never ends. It's natural enough, when long work results in success, to take a moment out to do a triumphant happy-dance, but remember while shaking what God gave you that your opponents are already looking for ways to roll back your improvements and undermine your good works. As happens similarly today, evil lawyerly minions who opposed Wiley managed to change the wording of legislation and rule-making so that strict guidelines were replaced with weasel words (e.g., “The guidelines now merely banned an undefined 'excessive' amount” (Kindle location 2430)). These words can then be litigated into meaninglessness, and/or cost pesky do-gooders a small mountain of legal fees. This is a fine book about a man whose life work benefitted others. In his lifetime, he received a certain amount of fame and monetary reward for his selflessness, but now he is largely forgotten, while names of murderous racists of the same period and earlier still grace our high schools and highways, and their graven images still infest our parks and public lands. Read this and remember someone worth remembering. I received a free electronic advance review copy of this book via Netgalley and Penguin Random House.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Papaphilly

    What an amazing book. This is both truly well written and a reminder how history repeats. if you hear about how good the food used to be, this book reminds you how good the food really was not. The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century is history at its best. Told with a reporter's eye, but with humanity, Deborah Blum never lets the reader forget what is at stake. She spins a tale that reads like a well written novel, but never str What an amazing book. This is both truly well written and a reminder how history repeats. if you hear about how good the food used to be, this book reminds you how good the food really was not. The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century is history at its best. Told with a reporter's eye, but with humanity, Deborah Blum never lets the reader forget what is at stake. She spins a tale that reads like a well written novel, but never strays from the main pint of the book. This is the story of America's food purity law and the battle that started at the turn of the twentieth century and continues to this day. What comes across very well is this is the type of battle that is waged throughout American history. I was amazed at the companies that are under fire today were under fire then too. I am also amazed how certain brands were always industry leaders in both quality and purity. The same arguments portrayed the are used today. It is too expensive, it will not hurt the public, the government has no oversight to name just a few. The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century is also about iconoclastic personalities. Dr. Wiley, the main focus of the book is so single minded, he cannot comprehend compromise. This is both an excellent history and an excellent read.

  8. 5 out of 5

    E

    Clearly well-researched, it's a look into the life of Dr. Harvey Wiley and also the precursor department to what we know as the FDA today. It's both fascinating and horrifying, the list of preservatives and agents that industry manufacturers considered common to put in their food for the masses. No one will be surprised that half of one chapter is devoted to Upton Sinclair and "The Jungle" but how many people know that the federal government put Coca-Cola on trial? I'd recommend this book to any Clearly well-researched, it's a look into the life of Dr. Harvey Wiley and also the precursor department to what we know as the FDA today. It's both fascinating and horrifying, the list of preservatives and agents that industry manufacturers considered common to put in their food for the masses. No one will be surprised that half of one chapter is devoted to Upton Sinclair and "The Jungle" but how many people know that the federal government put Coca-Cola on trial? I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoys history, chemistry or food.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jeimy

    This is billed as a fascinating story about how food was made safe in America, but I have to disagree with the second part of that statement. It is about how food was made safer. However, it doesn't take much for readers to see how much our capitalistic government bends to serve the whims of corporations. Food adulterations continue to occur. Read this book to understand how much has improved and ponder how far we still have to go.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Eustacia Tan

    After reading about how teas used to be adulterated, the synopsis of The Poison Squad caught my eye. And, I have to admit, the book shocked me – I didn’t think that deception in food could be that bad! The Poison Squad is the story of Harvey Wiley, the father of the Pure Food and Drug Act. The early 1900s was a bad time for food – as the book puts it, ” ‘Honey’ often proved to be thickened, colored corn syrup, and ‘vanilla’ extract a mixture of alcohol and brown food coloring. ‘Strawberry’ jam co After reading about how teas used to be adulterated, the synopsis of The Poison Squad caught my eye. And, I have to admit, the book shocked me – I didn’t think that deception in food could be that bad! The Poison Squad is the story of Harvey Wiley, the father of the Pure Food and Drug Act. The early 1900s was a bad time for food – as the book puts it, ” ‘Honey’ often proved to be thickened, colored corn syrup, and ‘vanilla’ extract a mixture of alcohol and brown food coloring. ‘Strawberry’ jam could be sweetened paste made from mashed apple peelings laced with grass seeds and dyed red” and so forth. Given my interest in tea, I kept an eye out for fake tea and found something called “lie tea”. As the book describes it, “this substance, as its name implied, was an imitation of tea, usually containing fragments or dust of the genuine leaves, foreign leaves, and mineral matters, held together by means of a starch solution.” Ewwwww! Apart from the fake food, a lot of food was preserved with poisonous substances like formaldehyde, borax, and much more. One scientist in Wiley’s division “tested 198 samples of candy and found that a full 115 were tainted by the use of dangerous dyes, mostly arsenic and lead chromate.” Back then, food manufacturers argued against government interference in food regulation, arguing that these were harmful to the business. Additionally, they argued that it was better for the food to stay preserved than to have it rot (further) and spread diseases. It took Harvey Wiley and his poison squad, a team of volunteers who subjected themselves to the preservatives to see their effects, to prove that what was in the food was bad for the human body. You would think that once all these fakery and harmful preservatives were brought to light, the government would want to move swiftly and clamp down on these food manufacturers, right? Well, although the American public was rightly outraged at what they were eating, the government was strangely reluctant to act. Agriculture Secretary, James Wilson, thought that Wiley was too much of a crusader and even brought in a board of people whose purpose was to ‘review’ Wiley’s findings. I found The Poison Squad to be a fascinating read. It covers Wiley’s years in office and documents his battle to make sure food is pure. Wiley is extremely strict about food standards, perhaps so strict that harmed it his political career, but you have to admire him for it. If you’re interested in food safety, or just interested in knowing more about how food and the regulation needed, this is the book to read. It’s hooked me from the start and I couldn’t put it down. And while there was a pretty long list of people (long enough that the first few pages were a character list), keeping track of them felt natural. You don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy this. Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review. This review was first posted at Eustea Reads

  11. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    This book describes the work of Department of Agriculture chemist Harvey Wiley in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wiley worked tirelessly to get the U.S. government to regulate food producers and marketers, who were producing foods in highly unsanitary conditions and adulterating foods with substances that mimicked actual foods (pumpkin rinds, coconut shells), were intended to restore rotten foods (formaldehyde), were intended to preserve foods longer in that era of uncertain This book describes the work of Department of Agriculture chemist Harvey Wiley in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wiley worked tirelessly to get the U.S. government to regulate food producers and marketers, who were producing foods in highly unsanitary conditions and adulterating foods with substances that mimicked actual foods (pumpkin rinds, coconut shells), were intended to restore rotten foods (formaldehyde), were intended to preserve foods longer in that era of uncertain refrigeration (again with the formaldehyde), were intended to color foods to make them look better (copper sulfates, coal-tar dyes), or were intended to take up room in the package with a substance less expensive than the food product would have been (borax, floor sweepings). There were no requirements that products be labeled for contents or package weight. Food manufacturers and packagers strenuously resisted regulations and contributed to congressional representatives to convince them that such regulations were "anti-business," although people were being sickened and poisoned and deceived. Women's organizations (in this pre-women's suffrage era) lobbied strongly for regulations, as did publications like Good Housekeeping magazine. The publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in 1906 exposed sickening practices in the Chicago meatpacking industry and helped to pass the first, rather toothless pure food law, but it was a step on the way to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and to the labeling and packaging requirements that we take for granted today. One thing that I kept thinking as I read this book, in this era of deregulation, is that businesses and industries will buy votes and do almost anything else they must to save money or make money--witness the oil industry and the dismantling of regulations to protect the environment--regardless of the effects on human beings, screaming all the way that they will be put out of business or that the government is anti-business if it tries to protect the people it is supposed to be serving. And the politicians pocket the money and fail to act, for the most part, until some lethal scandal occurs and the outrage of the people forces action. Let this be a warning to us that regulation can be a very good thing. The book essentially ends when Dr. Wiley retires, although there is an epilogue that traces more recent developments. I wish the author had gone into detail about recent years and the accomplishments of the FDA (such as keeping thalidomide out of the United States), but I guess she had to stop somewhere. I enjoyed reading this book, although it is horrific what food producers used to do to save pennies or attract business at the expense of their customers' health and lives (arsenic in candy, kids?).

  12. 5 out of 5

    Chain Reading

    This narrative non-fiction tells the story of the struggle for the legislation that grew into the Pure Food and Drug Act, and Harvey Wiley, the passionate, blunt and relentless scientist that made it happen despite intense political opposition and pressure from industry. I enjoyed this book but I am not sure that a wider audience would like it as much. Part of what I like about it is that because I have my own involvement with government policy, it soothes me to realize that its normal for there This narrative non-fiction tells the story of the struggle for the legislation that grew into the Pure Food and Drug Act, and Harvey Wiley, the passionate, blunt and relentless scientist that made it happen despite intense political opposition and pressure from industry. I enjoyed this book but I am not sure that a wider audience would like it as much. Part of what I like about it is that because I have my own involvement with government policy, it soothes me to realize that its normal for there to be a struggle, and that in fact, everything that ever got done was like herding cats - that's just the way making change is. However, I feel that many general readers might be turned off by the bureaucratic back and forths, since these are more prominent in the book than the elements of science and biography, though those are there too. My favourite part of the book was the poison squad itself, who were not scientists but volunteers who ate their meals in the research centre so that changes in their health in response to different additives could be observed. I wanted to know more about those men as individuals. Oh, and I also feel it would be more intellectually honest to acknowledge that while many of the additives that Wiley fought over were later shown to be legitimately dangerous, some of them were not.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Virginia

    An intense historical narrative about the fight to regulate food in the US. Deborah Blum's book will shock and intrigue you as she goes through the life of Harvey Washington Wiley's whose research and strength pushed legislation to protect the current and next generation of Americans from terrible ingredients food companies added to make their food last longer or produce faster. You mouth will drop at her descriptions of formaldehyde being used in milk, green slime getting scrapped off canned me An intense historical narrative about the fight to regulate food in the US. Deborah Blum's book will shock and intrigue you as she goes through the life of Harvey Washington Wiley's whose research and strength pushed legislation to protect the current and next generation of Americans from terrible ingredients food companies added to make their food last longer or produce faster. You mouth will drop at her descriptions of formaldehyde being used in milk, green slime getting scrapped off canned meat, and whiskey using anything but distilled corn. If you still have a steady stomach, you'll be intrigued by the politics and lobbying used to help food companies keep these terrible practices. Then, prepare to be surprised at the extents Wiley went to show how dangerous these food additives were, including human experimentation. The worst thing about all this? Despite Wiley's hard work, we're still not done yet. This book is incredibly fascinating and very well written, propelling you through 19th and 20th century American history and looking at a section you might not have read about before (beyond THE JUNGLE by Upton Sinclair which is talked about in the book!). This compulsive read is perfect for American history buffs and would be a "cool" gift for foodies.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Annie

    The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade For Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, by Deborah Blum, is as close to a perfect work of nonfiction as I can imagine. If I didn’t know better, I would have said that it was custom written for me. This book follows the career of Dr. Harvey Wiley, a tireless proponent of legislation to keep food safe for consumers. His chemical work and political advocacy helped bring about the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and government regula The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade For Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, by Deborah Blum, is as close to a perfect work of nonfiction as I can imagine. If I didn’t know better, I would have said that it was custom written for me. This book follows the career of Dr. Harvey Wiley, a tireless proponent of legislation to keep food safe for consumers. His chemical work and political advocacy helped bring about the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and government regulation that helps keep Americans safe and healthy to this day. Without Wiley’s work, unscrupulous food, drink, and drug manufacturers would have continued to adulterate these products with poison and sold garbage under false labels. This may not sound all that exciting, but this book is packed with political scandals and (my favorite) horrible stories about awful historical practices. Blum writes about all of this with wit and fairness that made it all a pleasure to read—but only for people with strong stomachs... Read the rest of my review at A Bookish Type.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Peter

    An interesting story with stomach-turning details, and most importantly a vigorous defense of government regulation--better, consumer protection--against shameless corporate desire to cut costs no matter what the human cost. There are of course some industrial good guys--Henry Heinz, for example, and others who found they could make money off unadulterated goods and wanted to make sure they weren't unfairly undercut. But the story is very much about how little mattered aside from profit, unless An interesting story with stomach-turning details, and most importantly a vigorous defense of government regulation--better, consumer protection--against shameless corporate desire to cut costs no matter what the human cost. There are of course some industrial good guys--Henry Heinz, for example, and others who found they could make money off unadulterated goods and wanted to make sure they weren't unfairly undercut. But the story is very much about how little mattered aside from profit, unless the government had regulations with teeth. And then as now, the government was in large part in the pocket of industry. But with the work of good public servants, and especially with a lot of outcry from the public--notably, in large numbers, women--and the press, the government could be pushed to do what was right. However, the pushing had to--has to--continue to prevent backsliding. And the clear parallels with the present, the continuity with today's backsliding and struggle, are spelled out in Blum's conclusion. This is a fascinating, equal parts maddening and inspiring, timely book.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Carissa

    A really, really good book that follows the career of Harvey Wiley and his crusade for food safety. It is astounding, if you weren't already aware, of exactly what was put into foods and drugs when no regulation existed. It is astounding, if not surprising, what manufacturers would do to protect their business over the health of the consumer. And it is astounding, if unfortunate, how much work had to be done to put consumer safety into law - and keep it there, a war started by Wiley and one that A really, really good book that follows the career of Harvey Wiley and his crusade for food safety. It is astounding, if you weren't already aware, of exactly what was put into foods and drugs when no regulation existed. It is astounding, if not surprising, what manufacturers would do to protect their business over the health of the consumer. And it is astounding, if unfortunate, how much work had to be done to put consumer safety into law - and keep it there, a war started by Wiley and one that is not done, even today. I do not envy the foods of the olden days where thousands of children would die from drinking milk with no government action nor do I think we truly appreciate how we got to where we are today with food safety. That said, not only is it a wonderful book about food safety, but one that follows policy and politics and shows us that many of the battles we fight today are eerily alike to the ones fought more than a century ago. I read it through a mixture of a physical copy and audiobook. The audiobook is well done.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Mary Van Opstal

    This is a fantastic and engaging book even for its grotesque description of adulterated and poisoned food in late 19th and early 20th century. I love all of this because it’s chemistry, and the main character food chemist Harvey Wiley is fascinating and a crusader for pure food. It’s scary to think there were no labels on food or ingredients listed. All that we take for granted. Until the first pure food and drug law in 1906, lots of food was not what you think it was. This is an important book This is a fantastic and engaging book even for its grotesque description of adulterated and poisoned food in late 19th and early 20th century. I love all of this because it’s chemistry, and the main character food chemist Harvey Wiley is fascinating and a crusader for pure food. It’s scary to think there were no labels on food or ingredients listed. All that we take for granted. Until the first pure food and drug law in 1906, lots of food was not what you think it was. This is an important book to read during these times where the science is not in question about safety (not just food and drugs, but waste, climate change) but this administration seems to think so. Just like the Poisoners Handbook, Great book!

  18. 4 out of 5

    Amy Christine Lesher

    Wow! My family worried about me reading this book because I might decide that I won't eat anything. I had to remind them that I was reading about events from 100 years ago. The fight for pure food and medicine is a more drawn out fight than I learned in high school. I learned that after publication of The Jungle that the FDA was created. New, weak laws were enacted, but it took years of fighting to get our food, drink and medicine pure, read safe. I recommend this book strongly. We all need to k Wow! My family worried about me reading this book because I might decide that I won't eat anything. I had to remind them that I was reading about events from 100 years ago. The fight for pure food and medicine is a more drawn out fight than I learned in high school. I learned that after publication of The Jungle that the FDA was created. New, weak laws were enacted, but it took years of fighting to get our food, drink and medicine pure, read safe. I recommend this book strongly. We all need to know about Harvey Washington Wiley and the young civil servants who volunteered for the poison squads. I won a copy of this book through Goodreads.

  19. 4 out of 5

    TJ

    This book serves a couple of uses. First, it's an effective diet book. You'll be looking at all your food suspiciously. And it's also a damning indictment of removing federal regulations. I was a little disappointed that the science was less featured than it was in The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York but the history lesson is timely and relevant.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Patricia

    It very interesting. It's hard to believe what was passed off to consumers as food in the late 1800 and 1900. The labeling of food we are accustomed to now was a hard fight. Food manufactures fought labeling and adulterations of food and drugs again and again. Sometimes people died from additives. The manufactures did not care. Now we can feel fairly safe that sugar actuarily is sugar when listed on a food label. Same for many other products. One dear to my heart is maple syrup. Now you can read It very interesting. It's hard to believe what was passed off to consumers as food in the late 1800 and 1900. The labeling of food we are accustomed to now was a hard fight. Food manufactures fought labeling and adulterations of food and drugs again and again. Sometimes people died from additives. The manufactures did not care. Now we can feel fairly safe that sugar actuarily is sugar when listed on a food label. Same for many other products. One dear to my heart is maple syrup. Now you can read a product label and know you are getting corn syrup disguised as male syrup.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    Extremely eye-opening account of the beginning of food and drug regulation in the US,and necessary reading for anyone under the illusion that food in the past was always pure and unprocessed,or that corporate interests pushing against regulation is a modern phenomenon. Not recommended for reading while eating, as the food additives used and horrific preparation conditions described are quite stonmach-turning

  22. 4 out of 5

    Pam

    This is fascinating account of the manufactured food industry in late 18th and early 19th centuries and how U.S. govt chemist, Dr. Harvey Wiley (truly a hero) fought to educate the public and impose regulations to clean it up. The descriptions of the preservative and adulteration practices of the time will horrify and disgust you. Admittedly the last half of this dragged a bit for me, with a lot of science and details about the politics of enacting "pure food" legislation.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    A fascinating look at the history behind the FDA and the legislation enacted to protect the American food supply. This book was packed with information but Blum kept things fast paced and easy to digest (pun intended). I thoroughly enjoyed "The Poisoner's Handbook," so I expected to like this one, too, and certainly did!

  24. 4 out of 5

    Casey

    This was interesting and informative. It's shocking to read of the horrendous food conditions for example, Formaldehyde was commonly added to milk?! It was long uphill battle to get any regulation in place and The Heinz Company was a lonely big business advocate for regulation. This was a dull read however. The second half of the book was particularly dry and was hard to finish.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    I was not quite as enthralled as when I read/listened to The Poisoner’s Handbook, but it was still excellent. I Really like the way the author manages to give you an overview of a movement and time period by focusing on a central figure you have probably never heard of. All while teaching some solid, if often disgusting science along the way.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Markell

    A fun (?) read about a serious subject. Makes me glad to live in the 21st Century and not a hundred years ago when they were putting all sorts of toxic chemicals into food. Also interesting to see that the influence of business on legislation and Congress was the same as it is now! This book had a good "story line" but lots of food science, politics, and history. A good mix for me.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    If I’ve seen you in the past two days, I probably brought this book up because I can’t stop talking about it (so much formaldehyde in food!) It’s kinda nuts/fascinating. The parallels to the present are also just ugh.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Erin

    Absolutely fascinating. I guess I should feel glad that the American political system has always been full of craven, venal blowhards. Frankly we’re all lucky to be alive, given this history of the pure food and drug act.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Judy

    Great! Well-written and packed with interesting stuff about food safety and regulation. Amazingly disgusting info on dairy and meat contamination in early 1900. Dr. Harvey Wiley is my new hero. Lots of great political insight here too, for those who like this kind of stuff.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Robert Anderson

    A bit dry, but a must read for those in food quality, food safety, regulatory and/or toxicology. Excellent history of the origins of the 1906 Pure Food Law, the FDA and food adulteration, and shows how after 100 years Congress hasn't changed a bit.

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