In June of 1899, the city of Omaha reported a health crisis affecting local children. The culprit was “embalmed milk”, or dairy treated with a chemical additive containing formaldehyde. The dairy industry had discovered that the sweetness of formaldehyde — commonly used to preserve corpses — could mask the flavor of spoiled milk. As a result, children and infants exposed to embalmed milk sickened and died at an alarming rate during the spring, a time when children were usually in good health.
But the embalmed milk problem was not confined to Nebraska. In Indiana, some dairies were pouring higher doses of straight formaldehyde into their milk on the basis that it would better preserve their product — ultimately killing nearly four hundred children. After the problem was brought to court, Indianapolis News published a startling cartoon illustrating the fight against embalmed milk: an infant child staring up at a monster emerging from a bottle of milk. Public outrage helped bolster support for the 1898 Pure Food Law, banning formaldehyde from being added to milk.
“It looks like a tough battle for the little fellow.” (Indianapolis News, circa 1900) Source: Indiana.gov
In her new book The Poison Squad, author Deborah Blum invites readers to step back into the early twentieth century when food and beverage industries in the United States were virtually unregulated. Consumers were sickened by food tainted with high doses of chemical preservatives, tricked into believing labels that identified foods as something they were not, and were sold spoiled meat and dairy passed off as fresh. Specifically, Blum focuses on the efforts of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley and his campaign to regulate the American food industry.
When Wiley leaves his position as a chemistry professor at Purdue University to become chief chemist of the United States’ Agriculture Department, he find himself faced with opposition from both industry and within the department. But over time, Wiley becomes an indomitable force fixated on taking down the industry titans poisoning consumer’s food with unregulated chemicals and preservatives. Like the infant facing off against the Milk monster, this is a story of David and Goliath.
Chemistry in the early twentieth century was finding the invisible threats hiding inside food. And for the first time, knowledge on how to detect these threats and turn them visible was being distributed to those in charge of the kitchen: women. Housewives became the target audience for books like What We Eat: An Account of the Most Common Adulterations of Food and Drink with Simple Tests by Which Many of Them May Be Detected, by physician Thomas A. Hoskins in 1861. It set the precedent for many books and magazine articles to follow, teaching women about chemistry and how to detect adulterations in their food. After all, a responsible housewife would want to inspect ingredients for contamination before feeding her family.
The household cook could invest in reagents easily obtained from the local pharmacy: iodine, hydrochloric acid, grain alcohol, and tools such as a magnifying glass. These enabled them to perform “kitchen-table experiments” without requiring the use of a lab, and detect contaminants such as copper sulfate (used to color canned peas a distinct green).
At the same time, watchdog journalists known as “muckrakers” were working to expose corruption. One of them, Upton Sinclair, would famously expose the horrific realities of the meat-packing industry in his book The Jungle. If you haven’t had the fortune of reading Sinclair’s book, it’s a worthwhile experience. I have known readers it turned into vegans and experienced the physical repulsion the book evokes. Blum takes you into the backstory of Sinclair’s efforts to write his book — and will make you thankful for living in the twenty-first century. Well-written, fast-paced, and deeply researched, Blum’s book will tickle your gag reflex and make you howl with outrage whenever industry wins.
If Wiley is the hero of the story, Secretary James Wilson is the villain. Blum carefully documents every instance of Wiley butting heads with Wilson, stirring emotion in readers each time one of Wiley’s requests is denied or a much-needed budget slashed. Blum does an excellent job of making a very political and complicated story both fascinating and relevant to the everyday reader. A casual interest in the history of food safety and chemistry is all that is necessary to carry you through the book — Blum expertly handles the rest.
The Poison Squad is named after a group of volunteers that Wiley recruits for a study on the effects of certain chemicals added to food. The group is pursued relentlessly by journalists who invent stories of Dr. Wiley and his test subjects, imagining what he might be feeding them in his curious kitchen. Studies on the Poison Squad helped find evidence that would later make new regulations on food possible. Blum recounts the story with a delightful level of detail that makes her book so enjoyable and worth reading.
Perhaps most importantly, Blum does not leave her reader in the twentieth century. She draws alarming connections to our current president’s business-friendly efforts to repeal the legislation keeping food and beverage industries in check. Ultimately, Blum leaves her reader to imagine a world without the regulations currently in place to keep our food safe. Consider the tragedy of the children who drank embalmed milk: without the regulations in place to protect consumers from unsafe chemicals and fraudulent claims, what would our country be exposed to today?