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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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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 co 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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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 co 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. 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.

  3. 5 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 4 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.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jill Heather

    I do not think I love the balance in this -- I would have preferred more on the political or more on the science, but this felt unsatisfyingly short on both, somehow. Still a very fascinating book.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Myers

    You know how some things seem like such an entrenched part of our society that we’ve forgotten how they got there? Deborah Blum reveals the story of one those facets of America: food and drug law (did you ever stop to think what “unbleached” flour means, or why labels are so proud of this fact? Mystery solved thanks to this book). Blum details Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley’s decades long quest (1880s-1906) for food and drug regulation, against always-formidable business owner foes and their govern You know how some things seem like such an entrenched part of our society that we’ve forgotten how they got there? Deborah Blum reveals the story of one those facets of America: food and drug law (did you ever stop to think what “unbleached” flour means, or why labels are so proud of this fact? Mystery solved thanks to this book). Blum details Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley’s decades long quest (1880s-1906) for food and drug regulation, against always-formidable business owner foes and their governmental allies. Rife with truly disgusting historical detail--congealed rope sent as meat to American soldiers, insects in dry goods, formaldehyde in milk--Blum renders evergreen American philosophies about regulation and capitalism in stark clarity. History isn’t as far away as it feels sometimes, and this book has made this particular legacy feel alive and close--a real accomplishment.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Randi Abel

  9. 5 out of 5

    Bethany

  10. 4 out of 5

    Alexandru

  11. 4 out of 5

    Tara

  12. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie Gillman

  13. 5 out of 5

    Alex Kane

  14. 5 out of 5

    Kvk

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kristina Stemple

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ash

  17. 4 out of 5

    Patrick

  18. 4 out of 5

    CC

  19. 5 out of 5

    Nathan Vassiliades

  20. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Olson

  21. 5 out of 5

    Margo

  22. 4 out of 5

    Bryonny

  23. 4 out of 5

    Melinda

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kent

  25. 5 out of 5

    Chuck Lee

  26. 5 out of 5

    Dan

  27. 4 out of 5

    Tamsyn

  28. 4 out of 5

    Derek

  29. 5 out of 5

    Amism

  30. 4 out of 5

    Dan

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