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the poison squad

24 february 2019

Deborah Blum's Poison Squad, unlike her earlier Poisoner's Handbook, isn't about detective-story murderous poisonings, but concerns one of her earlier book's subthemes: the low-level introduction of poisons into the environment by industries. A practice just as lethal in the long run, but more anonymous, less traceable, and in fact often stalwartly defended by its practitioners and abetted by their allies in government.

Blum's subtitle is One chemist's single-minded crusade, and the one chemist is Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930), once a bigger celebrity than Eric Schlosser or Michael Pollan in the annals of discourse about American food. Wiley was for several decades the chief chemist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He held that post during the most revolutionary era in federal regulation of the food supply; the landmark 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act was sometimes known simply as "Dr. Wiley's Law."

One of Blum's themes is Wiley's combativeness, exacerbated by his political naïveté. Although clearly, if you weather 30 years (1882-1912) in a high-profile government job, and become the face of historic legislation, you're more effective than the average civil servant. After resigning from the Agriculture Department, Wiley helped establish Good Housekeeping magazine as an arbiter of good food practices – so that to this day the Good Housekeeping "seal of approval" is something people will mention as a byword, without ever perhaps having seen one of the imprimaturs or knowing their history.

In fact, much of The Poison Squad is about the evolution of brands and battle-lines in American food culture, brands and battles that continue to this day. Monsanto is a bad guy in the narrative; so is Coca-Cola. The contest between processed carbs and whole grains was as angry a century and more ago as it is today; so was the struggle over sweeteners. Still-powerful brands like Heinz owe their massive accumulated cultural (and fiscal) capital to long-forgotten decisions their leaders took in the Wiley era. (Specifically, Heinz early adopted the program of selling preservative- and additive-free condiments, becoming beloved by purity-conscious consumers.) People are still vigilant, sometimes to the point of neurosis, about what they'll ingest – at least, in 2019 as in 1906, people who can afford such neuroses are so vigilant. And food additives and contaminants still sicken people, from salmonella in peanut butter to E. coli in romaine lettuce. Congress still insists on increasing federal oversight of the food supply, and the big producers still engage in regulatory capture to thwart popular legislation.

The "Poison Squad" proper was a team of dollar-conscious young federal employees who signed up for Wiley's early-1900s project of finally submitting certain food additives to empirical tests. Wiley fed these underpaid clerks at Agriculture's expense, provided they would agree to consume borax, sodium benzoate, and other delights along with their chow. Some got pretty sick. Wiley appears to have killed none of them, though. These human guinea pigs established at least some seat-of-the-pants limits for the regulations that followed the 1906 legislation.

Although the whole experience seems rather inexact. Food chemistry, to this day, is part art, part business negotiation, and part mythology along with some proportion of science. Wiley's initial studies suffered from small sample size as well as wobbly and ever-shifting experimental design. Ethical and social considerations meant that the suspect chemicals had to be tested on healthy young men (one assumes almost all of them white), and the appropriate limits for a diverse population extrapolated from those findings.

For Wiley, this often meant that if the Squad sickened from a large dose of a chemical, that chemical should be banned entirely. Wiley was not a fan, for instance, of sodium benzoate, and he demonstrated that a lot of the stuff could make people sick. But sodium benzoate is still widely used and "generally recognized as safe" by most governments. At the same time, consumer advocates are wary of it, and producers are sometimes pressured into replacing it without government intervention. Another item on Wiley's blacklist was saccharin, which got him into trouble with Monsanto and with Theodore Roosevelt, a fan of the sweetener. Saccharin too continues to have wide applications, to stir fears and provoke avoidances, and to go through cycles of retreat and return in the food supply. Unable to show that small amounts killed you, Wiley and his allies could not establish a safe threshold for saccharin content, and were thus unable to ban the chemical. But at the same time they suspected that amounts of saccharin that would not harm young men might be amplified, in the diets of pop-guzzling children, into really nasty doses.

Matters were made worse by Wiley's opponents in the Executive Branch, including his longtime boss James Wilson, an industry-friendly Secretary of Agriculture. Wilson went so far as to set up a rival office within Agriculture, led by a scientist named Ira Remsen – who was one of the discoverers of saccharin. With industries litigating his oversight and fellow regulators trying to blunt his impact, it is no wonder Wiley eventually fled government service for the bullier pulpit of Good Housekeeping.

Wiley's work proceeded on many fronts; he combated additives, preservatives, contaminants, adulterants, mislabeling, non-labeling, deceptive packaging – sometimes these battles involved some self-contradiction that his enemies exploited, showing that preservatives fought contaminants, and that sodium benzoate might be preferable to ptomaine poisoning. Only outright criminals would continue to lobby for lacing milk with formaldehyde, but even some of the more robber-baron of the rest had a certain point: bleached flour, for instance, was certainly a pure substance, and of low toxicity, even if not exactly natural. The resulting compromise (bleached flour most be so labeled) is still reflected on American supermarket shelves.

Some ubiquitous American products take their current form in part because of compromises struck in the Wiley era. 19th-century American producers hit on corn-derived dextrose, with some caramel coloring and maybe some distant exposure to traces of maple, as a substitute for maple syrup. Blum relates,

Wiley had insisted that the word "glucose" was the only accurate way to describe this sugary liquid. … It sounded unappetizing. … A new firm called the Corn Products Refining Company, created by a merger in 1906, … petitioned the government to be allowed to call its new corn-derived sweetener a syrup. (186)
Corn syrup was born, and Karo and Log Cabin took their places as American staples. And in the way of things, about a century later, after one of its variants was ennobled with the moniker "high-fructose" (sounds like fruit, right?) the label "corn syrup," once so soothing and inviting, became one of the great evils in the food debate once again.

Whiskey is another intriguing case. There were definitely items in the distillers' larders c1906 that were whiskey by no stretch of definition. Absolute poisons existed then as now, in the form of wood alcohol and worse (it was just this month, February 2019, that similarly adulterated spirits killed scores of people in the Indian state of Assam). But potable-enough ethanol drinks were widely sold as whiskey no matter what their origins or production process, back in Wiley's day, and he was steamed about it. (On this topic, Wiley and Teddy Roosevelt seemed to have reached a lasting consensus during an afternoon of scientific sampling.)

The problem, as the more legally-minded William Howard Taft would realize when he became President, was that "whiskey" is a singularly ill-defined term. Distill it too briefly and it's moonshine; distill it too thoroughly, and it becomes vodka; and what it is at any point in between is a matter of opinion. The blends of God-knows-what that circulated, 110 years ago, as "whiskey," were hard to tell strictly apart.

Taft said that he agreed with the wholesale group that all alcohols were basically "like" substances. Or as economics professor Henry Parker Willis put it, "Whiskey appears to be virtually anything that will serve to intoxicate." (225)
Hence the system that basically prevails today, where "a blend" covers a multitude of methods in the making of whiskey – and more exclusive labeling now supports a fast-growing trade in "local" high-end craft liquor … which in turn is now often produced by a single distillery in Indiana (Midwestern Grain Products) that mixes and matches and balances and provides your neighborhood hipster with his start-up supply.

As in The Poisoner's Handbook, Blum importantly intervenes in an ongoing debate. As Congress debated food-safety legislation in the 1890s and 1900s, rhetoric flared between those who saw a nanny state trampling the free market and individual consumer choice. Reformist Senator Porter McCumber (R-ND) thundered in reply:

On the contrary, it is the purpose of the bill that a man may determine for himself what he will eat and what he will not eat. It is the purpose of the bill that he may go into the market and when he pays for what he asks for that he shall get it and not get some poisonous substance in lieu of that. (132)
In this purpose, McCumber was seconded by Dr. Wiley, who "believed in allowing good science to help make good decisions" (194). The debate over that principle, as Blum wryly notes in her epilogue, is as timely as today's headlines.

Blum, Deborah. The Poison Squad: One chemist's single-minded crusade for food safety at the turn of the twentieth century. New York: Penguin, 2018.