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Encore: How A 19th Century Chemist Took On The Food Industry With A Grisly Experiment


Tonight, a new documentary on PBS takes you back to the late 1800s, when eating food in the U.S. meant taking a calculated risk.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: America was the Wild West for putting all kinds of chemicals into food.

SHAPIRO: The country was growing. People were moving into cities, and industrialization gave food producers new, sometimes dangerous, ways to stretch their products.


DEBORAH BLUM: They were very inventive with fakery back then because there were no rules against it, right? It's completely legal to do whatever.

SHAPIRO: That's author Deborah Blum. The PBS documentary "The Poison Squad" is based on her book "The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade For Food Safety At The End Of The Twentieth Century." When I spoke with Deborah Blum about her book in late 2018, I started by asking her what someone living around 1900 might find in everyday foods like coffee, candy or milk.


BLUM: Milk was a great example of just how bad things could get for a number of reasons. One, dairymen seeking to sort of stretch their profits would thin it with water. It wasn't always clean water. At one point, there was actually a case in Indiana which it was pond water.

SHAPIRO: Pond water.

BLUM: Pond water - and it was noticed when the family found worms wiggling in the bottom.

SHAPIRO: And pond water was actually some of the safer stuff that milk was contaminated with.

BLUM: That's exactly right because once you had thinned the milk, you had to reconstitute it in all kinds of weird ways. People put chalk dust in it. People put plaster dust in it. People put weird coal tar dyes and sometimes toxic dyes, like yellow lead, to kind of make it more golden again instead of kind of grayish or bluish.

And then, because it was prone to rot - this is before pasteurization and before refrigeration - they would dump preservatives in it. And the most popular one was formaldehyde, which is an embalming compound.

SHAPIRO: Which is not good for humans to ingest.

BLUM: No, and so you actually go out and can see newspaper headlines around the country during this period with embalmed milk scandals.

SHAPIRO: So along comes the protagonist of your story, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley. And his title is chief chemist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Why did he care so much about this issue?

BLUM: I've always thought of him as kind of a Holy Roller chemist, right? You have - Harvey Washington Wiley was the son of an itinerant preacher and farmer in Indiana. He was - father was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He was really raised - I mean, it's a real mid-19th century kind of childhood. He was really raised to think of what he did needing to be a higher calling. And he would describe chemistry that way - chemistry in the service of good.

And so when he became the chief chemist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture - I mean, this is at a period where there is no FDA. There is no consumer protection agency. This tiny group of chemists that he commanded at the Department of Agriculture was it on food safety. He took up that cause.

SHAPIRO: And your book's title, "The Poison Squad," comes from a project that he undertook that really just shows his commitment to this. Describe what the Poison Squad was.

BLUM: Well, this is an experiment you could never do today because he, basically, goes out and recruits other people at the Department of Agriculture, especially young clerks, to volunteer to dine very dangerously. And so the idea of the Poison Squad was that - three free meals a day, seven days a week, super fancy meals. They're cooked by a professional chef. All the ingredients are amazing.

And the only catch is you have to agree that half of you, at any given period in this experiment, are going to be adding capsules that contain suspect food additives. And the other thing about it - when you think, is this crazy or what? You are testing suspected toxic compounds on human volunteers - was that he felt that was the only way he could deal with this. You had this rising tide of really dangerous food additives. There was no safety regulation. How do I make a case that, perhaps, this is not a good idea? I'll just test it on people. And so he did.

SHAPIRO: To no one's surprise, if you feed people formaldehyde or arsenic or lead, they will get sick. And when you demonstrate that, why does it still remain so difficult to outlaw formaldehyde or arsenic or lead in food? Why was it just not an obvious thing that everybody got on board with right away?

BLUM: I mean, doesn't that sound like the most logical response? Oh, look; you've poisoned people. Let's get that out of the food supply.


BLUM: The food industry had been organizing itself to fight regulation probably at the point that Wiley starts these experiments in 1902. He had been advocating, advocating, advocating and working with congressmen to try to get some kind of basic consumer protection regulations out there - if nothing else, labeling.

And as he does these experiments and as they catch national attention, which they did - they were front page news. There were songs and, you know, musical numbers about them. Everyone is suddenly realizing that there is a lot of bad stuff in their food. There's just a lot of bad stuff in their food.

And so there's immediate pushback, right? - in which, suddenly, congressmen who are on the side of food business are getting offered more money, and the food industry actually organizes. They create a food manufacturers association and coalesce against making sure this doesn't happen. And they were phenomenally effective.

SHAPIRO: And yet, despite these long-fought fights that spanned decades, today, there isn't lead and formaldehyde and arsenic in food the way that there was a hundred years ago. Progress really was made.

BLUM: Yes. Once this first food safety law - that passed in 1906, two years after Wiley finished his famous Poison Squad experiments. Once that law went into place, we started pulling stuff out. Formaldehyde went out. Salicylic acid went out. Borax went out. We - arsenic went out, right? You really see government stepping up for some of these extremely dangerous compounds.

SHAPIRO: Is this book just one big argument in favor of government regulation?

BLUM: In part because it certainly should be a reminder that before government regulation, food was a constant unknown and often terrifying risk to American consumers and put our lives at risk. But it's also, I hope, just a good story. It's a story of something that I love. I love these kinds of stories. It's a story of a single person who changes the conversation, right? And I think that's really important, too. We need to remember that someone who is focused and even obsessive and who stands up relentlessly for an issue can actually make a difference. So I hope it works on all those levels.

SHAPIRO: That's author Deborah Blum talking about her book "The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade For Food Safety At The Turn Of The Twentieth Century." A documentary from American experience based on her book airs on PBS tonight.

(SOUNDBITE OF KOELLE'S "BEFORE TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.