Book Review: The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum

Would you like some formaldehyde in your milk? What about a little mercury in your colored candy? A little borax in your butter? Chalk filled bread? Doesn’t it all sound yummy? Or ridiculous? The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Deborah Blum may not be an easy read, but it’s such an important piece of history that is still very relevant today.
When you can’t prosecute someone for killing someone because it’s not illegal to add lead or mercury to candy, then how do you know that what you buy to eat is safe? You don’t. Then you would think that creating laws against such actions should be an easy decision without obstacles. And yet… you learn just how much the money hungry manufacturers played a role in preventing these safety laws from coming into play (for years).

More shocking is that many of the chemicals that are still added to food (and personal care products) today where in question even then, back in the early 1900’s. Yet the lobbyists have been working hard to make sure that manufacturer’s are allowed to continue to poison us, so that they may make a quick easy buck. Benzoate is one of those ingredients that comes to mind.

This is a book about the birth of the FDA, but not the same FDA that you and I know today. If you are of the same opinion as me that the FDA is bought and paid for by the big pharma, the industrial food industry, lobbyists, politicians, and the like, then read this to learn for yourself how corrupt things were, even back then, when it was just beginning.

But there is hope, and that is what this book is about: A public servant champion, and the main person in this book, Dr. Wiley. Dr. Wiley never let anyone keep him from trying to make things right. And after 29 years with the US Department of Agriculture, he continued his contributions to improve our food supply through continued education on the subject by writing articles for Good Housekeeping. We really need more Dr. Wiley’s in our world, lots more of them.

It was at the beginning of his time at the Department of Agriculture that Dr. Wiley asked to run experiments to test the “preservatives” that were then commonly used in food preservation. There was no requirement for manufacturer’s to prove safety, so Dr. Wiley realized it was up to the government, or at least up to him, since he did not get much support from the government he worked for. I think I recall it took over three years to get the funding approved for such studies.

I’m not sure how humane the experiments were. Essentially feeding volunteers these very poisons called preservatives, and I understand the only payment these volunteers received was the very meals they were eating. At the same time, these poisons were already found in food at that time, so they might have been eating them without being an official volunteer. The fact that these volunteers ended up being dubbed as the “poison squad” is telling. And the fact that these studies, which showed that the preservatives being used were definitely not safe, especially in the quantities being used, were questioned and almost dismissed, is a perfect example of how there are just plain bad people out there who don’t give a darn about you, your family, or anyone else’s health. They only care about their wallet. This book also demonstrates that things haven’t really changed all that much. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Don’t let the dryness at the beginning of the book fool you. The descriptions of the players are all important because they all play an important role. You might even be surprised when you recognize some of the names that are well known today, and what role they played in poisoning your great grandparents back then. While the book can be a bit tedious at times, it is also quite engaging at other times. And remember, this is YOUR FOOD that it’s talking about. The very laws and regulations that are supposed to protect you and your children.

Do skip the epilogue though, it doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the book. The author really tried, but it just didn’t fit. But don’t let the epilogue ruin an otherwise great book. The book itself is an important piece of history that should have you reconsidering what is in your food now. Be thankful that we do have laws that require ingredients to be listed, and realize how much more work we have to do to guarantee a safe food supply in the world.

Most importantly, realize that the topics covered in this book still apply today. We still face safety problems with the food supply (e.g. toxic pesticides and preservatives), and we still face safety problems with other consumer products like personal care products.

Buy it, read it, read it again, tell a friend.

For Health,

Tober

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