Nina's Reading Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Dr. Wiley’s Law’

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

Posted by nliakos on November 15, 2018

by Deborah Blum  (Penguin 2018)

The “one chemist” of the title is consumer advocacy pioneer Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who headed up the Bureau of Chemistry at the Department of Agriculture from 1882 to 1912. Wiley fought to protect American consumers from mislabeled, adulterated, dangerous foods and medicines for his entire adult life. But The Poison Squad is not just about Wiley; it is also the story of his many allies (e.g., Willard Bigelow, lead chemist for Wiley’s early research into common food additives like sodium benzoate; and Henry J. Heinz of ketchup fame, who was an early advocate of preservative-free foods) and enemies (e.g., John Queeny, founder of Monsanto and a staunch defender of the unlabeled use of saccharin in food; and James Wilson, Secretary of Agriculture and Wiley’s boss, who often caved to industrial demands and suppressed Wiley’s findings and reports). (Blum helpfully provides a 9-page alphabetical cast of characters at the beginning of the book–I wish that all non-fiction writers did the same!) Scientists and journalists, novelists and cookbook authors, politicians and suffragists and consumer advocates on the one side, and industrialists, bureaucrats, different politicians and even presidents on the other–a great battle was waged for many years over the regulation of America’s food and drug supply. Interestingly from our perspective, around the turn of the 20th century, Democratic and Republican roles were reversed. The Democrats were the bad guys, supporting industry demands to be able to freely adulterate foods to cheapen production and increase profits, while the (progressive) Republicans were on the side of consumer safety.

Though the politics has changed, that battle continues today. Just one example is saccharin, one of the deleterious additives targeted by Wiley a century ago, which is still readily available on supermarket shelves now despite the finding that it “has a physiologic effect . . . in every place, in every cell.” (It was briefly banned in the 1980s but was unbanned in 2000.) Despite convincing scientific evidence, the food industry has continued to fight for the right to poison the public, as long as it increases their profit margin.

Wiley focused both on banning harmful substances in food, drinks, and medicines, and on truthful, complete labeling and advertising, so that consumers could know what they were buying and ingesting. He was also a dedicated feminist. He married late in life (not for lack of trying, but his wife, Anna Kelton, refused him when he first proposed, when she was in her late twenties and he about twice that). He was an enthusiastic supporter of his wife’s political activism in the suffragist movement. (Favorite quote, when Anna was arrested and jailed for political activity: “He had fought all his life for a principle and hardly could deny her the same privilege.”

Wiley was uncompromising in his zeal to clean up the food supply and get rid of false claims about medicinal properties. Time and time again, he courageously stood up to his boss (and to his boss’s boss, the President) and to his numerous detractors and opponents. One cannot help but admire him.

Reading about the long years of struggle before the first Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) and the ensuing struggle over writing and enforcing the regulations, I was reminded of the seemingly never-ending struggle for gun control legislation. The National Rifle Association plays the role of the food industry executives who shamelessly attacked those who were trying to protect the public. Organizations like MomsRising and Every Town for Gun Safety and individuals like Jim Brady and Gabby Giffords and the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas students play the roles of Harvey Wiley, Alice Lakey, Sinclair Lewis, Lincoln Steffens and so many others who refused to admit defeat despite numerous losses. The only way to combat this incessant greed, it would seem, is to persist, no matter how long it takes. Once the legislative battle is won, however imperfectly, we must gear up for the regulatory battle. And with Donald Trump in the White House, even regulations that have long been in place to protect consumers are being rolled back to the detriment of consumer safety and to the delight of the  industrialists (such as gun manufacturers and food/beverage/drug industry tycoons). The fight against the food and drug industries is never over, as Blum shows in her Epilogue. We must be forever vigilant.

This book is a fascinating and educational read. I highly recommend it, but I would advise you not to read it over lunch!

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