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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

"The Poison Squad"

“Dr. Wiley it was who, at Washington, first roused the country to an appreciation of purity and wholesomeness in foods. He has been the one conspicuous figure in food betterment and food conservation in the present generation.”

The New York Sun, 1917

Industrial progress after the Civil War impacted American society in many ways. One of these is the rapid spread of urbanization as cities attracted workers from the nation’s rural regions. At the same time, major urban centers, like New York, saw a large influx of immigrants. This sudden surge in urban population in the late 19th century affected the nation’s food supply. More people in cities placed pressure on food producers, and food needed to travel further to markets when there was little to no refrigeration. Those in the food industry, from meat suppliers to candy makers to dairy farmers, used questionable means to preserve food, increase quantities, and appeal to consumers’ aesthetic tastes. All this was done with no regulations or government oversight of these methods.

The meat and dairy industry was egregious in adding chemical additives to food. Borax was commonly used throughout the meat processing industry. It was also widely used in embalming as it slowed decomposition and reacted with proteins, thereby firming them up. Borax then was great for food preservation, in particular meat. The meat industry argued that a bit of borax was better than a mouthful of rancid meat. The head of the leading borax producer commented, “I wish to say that every one of us eats embalmed meats, and we know it, and we like it.” So-called “embalmed beef” was at the center of a controversy during the Spanish-American War. Army officers alleged that beef suppliers were providing the army with tainted tins of beef laced with chemicals that were the cause of illnesses throughout the armed forces.

Dairy producers were no better than the meat industry. Borax was added to butter. Beef fat or ground-up cow stomach was often dyed to make it appear like butter. Formaldehyde was added to milk as a preservative. Pureed calf brains were used to make milk seem creamier. Milk was thinned with water and gelatin. Dyes, chalk, and plaster were added to make the thinned milk look white.

Companies had free rein to include any ingredients they desired without any consequences. Safety testing and labeling requirements were non-existent. Unscrupulous practices were widespread, with companies resorting to various deceitful methods. Copper was added to vegetables to give them a vibrant green appearance. Spices were often adulterated with substances like ground coconut shells, charred rope, brick dust, and even floor sweepings. Honey was frequently nothing more than artificially colored corn syrup. Coffee grounds were commonly contaminated with dyed sawdust, tree bark, or charred bone, and imitation coffee beans were made from wax and dirt. Synthetic dyes were commonly used to enhance the appearance of food products, particularly confectionery items. These dyes often contained toxic substances such as lead, arsenic, and copper compounds.

None of this went unnoticed, and a few scientists began to wonder about the exact effects of these chemical additives on the health of people consuming them. One of these men was Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley.

Born in 1844, Harvey Washington Wiley grew up on a farm in Indiana and pursued higher education at Hanover College and the Medical College of Indiana. In 1874, he started working as a chemist at Purdue University, where he developed an interest in the issue of adulterated food. Wiley believed that industrially produced food contained harmful additives and misled consumers about its actual composition. In 1882, he was appointed Chief Chemist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he focused on studying the safety and effects of chemical preservatives in food. Over the following years, he would become a prominent figure in the pure food movement, advocating for food safety and transparency. Wiley dedicated himself to developing tests for food purity and pushing for legislation to ensure the safety and accuracy of food labeling. Despite facing powerful lobbying groups and opposition in Congress, he persisted in his efforts to pass pure-food bills and raise public awareness.

In 1902, Wiley convinced Congress to fund a project he called the “hygienic table trials.” The aim was to “investigate the character of food preservatives, coloring matters, and other substances added to foods, to determine their relation to digestion and health, and to establish the principles which should guide their use.” Wiley gathered together twelve carefully selected volunteers. They were provided with meals and accommodation in the basement of the Agricultural Department building. Before each meal, the men would be weighed, urine and stool samples taken, temperature and pulse rates measured and any changes in their condition were carefully monitored. Yet there was a catch. They were also given doses of the various chemicals utilized by the food industry. The first to be tested was borax. Half of the group would be given wholesome, unadulterated food, while the other half would consume food laced with common additives like borax and formaldehyde. Every two weeks, the two groups would switch. Surprisingly, many volunteers were eager to participate in these tests, despite the potential risks.

The menu for Christmas 1902 included: "Apple Sauce. Borax. Soup. Borax. Turkey. Borax. Borax. Canned Stringed Beans. Sweet Potatoes. White Potatoes. Turnips. Borax. Chipped Beef. Cream Gravy. Cranberry Sauce. Celery. Pickles. Rice Pudding. Milk. Bread and Butter. Tea. Coffee. A Little Borax." This fixation with borax led to Wiley gaining the nickname “Old Borax.” But they did show that borax did cause a myriad of health issues like headaches, stomachaches, and other digestive ailments. After borax, Wiley focused on other additives, such as sulfuric acid and formaldehyde. These, too, were linked to several health problems, including brain damage, liver damage, and kidney damage.

Despite the efforts of lobbyists to suppress Harvey Wiley's findings, the media eagerly reported on the activities of his trials. The group of volunteers was dubbed in the press “The Poison Squad.” Wiley initially tried to control the narrative by implementing a blackout and threatening to dismiss members who leaked information. However, news stories continued to circulate, often based on rumors and fabricated tales due to the lack of access to factual information. Eventually, Wiley changed his approach and actively promoted the squad, turning it into a highly publicized endeavor. He proudly claimed that the poison squad laboratory became the world's most widely advertised boarding house.

The Hygienic Table Trials ended in 1906, and Wiley's findings from the poison squad experiments led him to advocate for federal regulation to safeguard the public from harmful and deceptive practices by food suppliers. However, industry leaders, including the National Association of Food Manufacturers and chemical industry associations, strongly opposed Wiley's proposed legislation. They united their resources to fight against government regulation and launched a smear campaign against Wiley. One trade journal even labeled him as "the man who is doing all he can to destroy American business." Despite this, Wiley became a public crusader and built a coalition supporting national food laws.

But the publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel, “The Jungle,” in 1906 would provide the impetus to shift public opinion toward Wiley’s cause. It exposed the harsh and unsanitary conditions of the meatpacking industry in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Sinclair conducted extensive research and interviews to provide a detailed and shocking portrayal of the exploitation, corruption, and health hazards workers face in the industry. The vivid descriptions of meatpacking plants, including the infamous scene of workers falling into rendering vats, created a strong emotional response. Sinclair’s first publisher, MacMillan, refused to publish the novel. Doubleday would publish the work only after they did their own investigation. The public outrage following its publication increased pressure on politicians and the government to take action.

Wiley then found himself a powerful ally: President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had received a copy of Sinclair’s book and had investigators of his own conduct research on the meat packing industry. Surprisingly, he discovered conditions worse than what Sinclair portrayed in his novel. Wiley’s efforts, the president’s backing, and the force of public opinion ensured the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906. This landmark legislation, although initially vague and lacking clear standards for food, marked the beginning of government intervention in ensuring food safety. It paved the way for establishing the Food and Drug Administration and subsequent stronger regulations under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938.

The initial enforcement of the Pure Food and Drugs Act was under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry, which Wiley headed. Wiley's tenure was not without controversy, as debates arose regarding the enforcement and interpretation of the new law, particularly concerning the use of preserving chemicals. Despite these challenges, the Bureau of Chemistry, under Wiley's leadership, grew in strength and influence. After three decades at the forefront of food regulation, Wiley continued to educate the public on food safety and nutrition as the director of a new department at Good Housekeeping magazine. While at the magazine, Wiley was instrumental in creating the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

The absence of regulations during this era allowed unscrupulous food manufacturers to prioritize profits over consumer safety. It was not until the enactment of laws such as the Pure Food and Drugs Act in 1906, prompted by the tireless efforts of individuals like Harvey Washington Wiley that significant steps were taken to ensure the safety and integrity of food products. The struggle between business and regulation is still carried on today.


Further Reading:

The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum is available to download with a free trial to Audible. Audible is the premier source for audiobooks and other digital media. You can sign up for a free trial at By getting a free trial, you help support this blog. Thanks for the support.

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