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The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at… (2018)

af Deborah Blum

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2351187,372 (3.88)24
Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley set out to ensure food safety. He selected food tasters to test various food additives and preservatives, letting them know that the substances could be harmful or deadly. The tasters were recognized for their courage, and became known as the poison squad.
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I could live my whole life without the images of tainted food that Blum described. I did find the history of food legislation interesting and eerily similar to the process of regulations today. Corruption abounds. One of the biggest issues that overlays this history is the concept of societal needs vs. individual needs. Do the requirements of profitable businesses take precedence over a benefit to a whole group of people? Who sorts this? Lots of ethical questions are raised in determining the depth of governmental regulation.

I would recommend this to those interested in food safety and to those interested in the history of regulatory actions. ( )
  beebeereads | Mar 20, 2021 |
A fascinating read, albeit not one to undertake on a full stomach. Deborah Blum's The Poison Squad recounts the origins of food safety laws in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century U.S. Come for the anecdotes which you will be forced, forced, to read aloud to anyone unlucky enough to be in earshot of you (the U.S. government once sued some barrels of Coca-Cola! It used to be possible, and indeed legal, to buy 42lb barrels of decaying eggs mixed with borax to use in cake baking!), stay for the horrifying realisation of how little has truly changed in the battle between those working for food safety and environmental health standards and pro-business capitalists with their eye only on a corporation's bottom line. ( )
  siriaeve | Jan 17, 2021 |
What a delightful and compelling book. At times sad and at times infuriating, it is also at times funny in an absurd way when it details how industry and government fight over influencing public decisions and health. Much detail over the battle between those who feel "liberty" gives them the "right" to do whatever they want regardless of consequences vs those who want to compel the government to protect citizens from unscrupulous business. ( )
  keithostertag | Dec 25, 2020 |
This book documents the history of regulation of food labeling and safety. It was a difficult read...I hope I lost some weight! What was most discouraging is that it echoes the battle between business interests and consumer protection regulation that continues today. ( )
1 stem SignoraEdie | Sep 13, 2020 |
This is the fascinating, alarming, and encouraging story of the first great round in the fight for food safety in the USA.

In the second half of the 19th century, the food industry embraced the chemical industry, and preservatives, colorants, and substitutions became common. This might not sound all that alarming, as all those terms apply to things legitimately used in food now. However, at that time, milk could contain formaldehyde, jellies and jams might contain none of the claimed fruit at all and get their color from coal tar dyes, and there were no labeling requirements at all. Basic food safety legislation was making progress in Europe, but was completely squelched by industry efforts in America.

In 1883, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley was appointed chief chemist of the Department of Agriculture, and began a thirty-year crusade for clean, safe, and honestly packaged food. Under him, the agency began methodically investigating fraud in the manufacture and sale of food and drink. This included tests on human volunteers dubbed "The Poison Squad," tests that probably wouldn't pass an ethics committee review now, but were for the time a serious early attempt at controlled testing with informed volunteer test subjects. Among the commonly used preservatives in food at the time, aside from formaldehyde, were borax (a cleaning compound) and salicylic acid (a pharmaceutical). Saccharine was used as a sugar substitute in food products that continued to be labeled, if they were at all, as being sweetened with sugar. Even honest labeling was seen as an outrageous infringement on noble American business.

Wiley wasn't just fighting industry greed; he was often fighting politicians in the House and Senate, and even his own colleagues in the Department of Agriculture. On the other hand, he also had allies: the American Medical Association, women's suffrage groups, Fannie Farmer and other popular cookbook writers, women's magazines, and even those companies in the food industry, such as J.B. Heinz, who took pride in their products being manufactured to high standards with only the expected ingredients (ketchup made primarily of tomatoes, for instance.)

It's a fascinating battle, with victories and setbacks, and Wiley himself is an interesting character. Nor is he the only interesting character here. It was never a one-man battle, on either side of the fight, and Blum truly does justice to the story.

Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook. ( )
1 stem LisCarey | Jan 24, 2020 |
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The sixth of seven children, Harvey Washington Wiley was born on April 16, 1844 in a log cabin on a small farm in Kent, Indiana, about a hundred miles northeast of the farm where Abraham Lincoln had grown up a few decades earlier.
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O we're the merriest heard of hulks / That ever the world has seen; / We don't shy off from your / Rough on Rats or even from Paris green / We're on the hunt for a toxic dope / That's certain to kill sans fail / But it is a tricky elusive thing and / Knows we are on its trail / For all the things that could kill / We've downed many a gruesome wad / And still we're gaining a pound a day / For we are the Pizen Squad - Song of the Poison Squad by S.W. Gillilan
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Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley set out to ensure food safety. He selected food tasters to test various food additives and preservatives, letting them know that the substances could be harmful or deadly. The tasters were recognized for their courage, and became known as the poison squad.

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