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Tasty Tuesdays: Poison Squad

September 8, 2020

The Not So Savory Start of Food Regulation in America 

While flipping through the channels one evening I was fortunate to come across a PBS American Experience episode that featured the Poison Squad. I had no idea what this was, but this was one time I allowed myself to be sucked in by the title. Once the documentary got started, I was totally engrossed.  The documentary covers the life work of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley. His life’s quest was to remove dangerous food additives from the food production industryDr. Wiley was a chemist who ended up being hired by the US Government to be the Chief Chemist of the Department of Agriculture in 1882. In this role he would be testing the safety of food additives for the U. S. government. 

I was totally amazed at the chemicals and poisons that were added to foods all in the vein of preserving them and in some cases thinking they were beneficial additives to consumers. This may all sound mundane and much like what happens in today’s food production and preservation industry, but wait until you hear what some of the additives were. Formaldehyde was often used as an additive in milk because it was known to make even curdled milk taste sweet. Borax was added to almost every food you could imagine. Arsenic used was used as food dye. These are only a few examples of what you could expect to find in your food at the turn of the century. Not only were chemicals, cleaners and poisons added to food but a host of other things including sawdust, pond water, and chalk. I had always thought that people in the past had the benefit of eating purer food than we have today, but it seems eating was more a game of chance than one would have thought.  

Not only did Dr. Wiley wish to stop the additives being put in food but he advocated strongly to get ingredient labels put on products so the public could make an informed decision. He was strongly against the misleading of the public by mislabeling of food. The biggest example of this was when the dairy industry frequently would label margarine as butter. Whereas the production of margarine wasn’t harmful to consumers, Wiley thought that it should not be sold as butter. 

Why the episode is called the Poison Squad is because Dr. Wiley obtained permission from the government to perform an experiment on a group of men testing how much of common food additives could be added to a person’s diet before they experienced adverse side effects and what they would be. Twelve young men were recruited for the task of eating their meals laced with the common additives. You can only Imagine the results! 

So, What Changed? 

Though Wiley worked tirelessly for food regulation he was up against a lot. Wealthy food manufacturers lobbied in Washington against food regulation, so the road was long and arduous. Wiley fought large companies, corporations and lobbyists while working for the government with little success. You may ask, “What finally caused a change in this country?” and the answer is a book. Upton Sinclair released his book The Jungle which exposed the life of immigrants in America. It also offered a not so favorable look into the meat packing industry in Chicago. This all set the stage and led to the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Sinclair was quoted as saying, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” This act would be the first of many that protected the consumer and led to the government banning adulterated and mislabeled food.  

After his work with the governmentDr. Wiley was hired by Good Housekeeping to create what we now know as the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. 

This episode of The American Experience really educated me on a part of American history I knew very little about. My curiosity was so peaked that I found the book The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum which provided many of the details from the documentary. I highly recommend checking out American Experience: The Poison Squad on DVD and Poison Squad by Deborah Blum. You can also check out Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. 


Place your hold on American Experience: The Poison Squad here. 

Place a hold on the e-book Poison Squad by Deborah Blum here. 

Place a hold on the e-audiobook Poison Squad by Deborah Blum here. 

Place a hold on the book Poison Squad by Deborah Blum here. 

Place a hold on the e-book or e-audiobook of The Jungle here. 

Place a hold on the book or audiobook of The Jungle here. 


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