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The Poison Squad

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

Deborah Blum
Penguin Press
352 pp.
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In 1844, when Harvey Washington Wiley was born, the federal agency at which he would eventually become chief chemist had not even been created. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was founded in 1862. Yet Wiley is still the hero of Deborah Blum’s riveting, stomach-turning new book, The Poison Squad.

Whereas today as many as 15 federal agencies work with international, state, and local authorities to protect the American food supply, Wiley arrived on the scene when virtually no such protections existed. Before his retirement in March 1912, he and his team worked to implement some of the earliest food safety laws. But prior to doing so, they had to quantify how many of the food and drink products being consumed were adulterated (87% of the coffee samples tested, it turns out), determine the health effects of preservatives commonly found in food and drink (such as borax and salicylic acid), and communicate their findings to American consumers. Blum narrates the team’s scientific and political adventures, including their era-specific difficulties (preserving food without modern refrigeration) and the more enduring challenges to consumer protection (obstructionism).

The Poison Squad offers a gripping history of the more than 20 years it took to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, including all of the coalition building, advocacy, political failures, and cultural successes that accompany a major piece of legislation. Muckracking journalists such as Upton Sinclair aided Wiley’s team’s efforts, whereas backroom negotiations between companies and political figures stalled them. Budgets were slashed only to be restored; furious letters were drafted between Wiley and his various antagonists and allies; and an outpouring of support from American women and doctors ultimately helped Congress to pass the bill.

But passing a law isn’t the same as getting it funded, implemented, and enforced. The Poison Squad offers an account of the complex relationship between a law, the appropriations to support its implementation, the rules to carry it out, regulatory decisions about enforcement, and subsequent legal challenges that may alter or undermine it all.

Blum isn’t just telling one scientist’s story but a broader one about the relationship between science and society. And because that relationship is maintained in much the same way today as it was in Wiley’s time, The Poison Squad is a timely tale about how scientists and citizens can work together on meaningful consumer protections.

About the author

The reviewer is at the World Wildlife Fund, Washington, DC, 20037, USA.