Friday, January 24, 2020

The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, by Deborah Blum (author), Kristen Potter (narrator)

Penguin Audio, ISBN 9780525639893, September 2018

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.

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