Phyllis Entis

Award-winning mystery writer and food safety microbiologist

Book Review: The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum

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“Regulation is bad for business.”

It’s an all-too-common refrain, but not exclusively a modern one.

Most people, when asked what they know about the origin of the US Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, are likely to respond with either a shrug or a blank stare. A few may credit Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the horrendous practices in Chicago slaughterhouses, as described in his novel, The Jungle. Others may give credit to President Theodore Roosevelt, whose disgust at the food supplied to his troops in Cuba during the Spanish American War impelled him to support the campaign for safer food.

It would be a rare person, indeed, who would recognize the name of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley. Yet, without Dr. Wiley’s persistence, the first Pure Food and Drug Act might never have been signed into law.

Before the turn of the 20th century, food adulteration was rife, and food labeling non-existent. Formaldehyde and other harsh chemicals were used to extend the shelf life of perishable commodities, while dyes derived from coal tar were incorporated into everything from candy to peas. Unregulated, free enterprise prevailed. Embalmed beef, swill milk, and fake food were the order of the day.

In 1882, Dr. Harvey Wiley joined the US Department of Agriculture as Chief Chemist, a position he would hold for 30 years. The first 24 years of his stewardship were devoted to promoting the passage of a safe food law. The remaining six years were consumed with protecting the act from emasculation.

The Poison Squadis the story of Dr. Wiley’s lifelong crusade for safe food in the face of opposition from large swaths of the chemicals, dyes, and food processing industries. Author Deborah Blum guides the reader through a complex and compelling saga with skill, and with a clear mastery of the subject matter. Consumers and legislators alike can learn from Blum’s portrayal of Dr. Wiley’s legacy.

About the Author
Deborah Blum is director of the Knight School Journalism Program at MIT and publisher of Undarkmagazine (undark.org). In 1992, she won the Pulitzer Prize for a series on primate research, which she turned into a book, The Monkey Wars. Her other books include The Poisoner’s Handbook, Ghost Hunters, Love at Goon Park, and Sex on the Brain. She has written for publications including the New York Times, Wired, Time, Discover, Mother Jones, the Guardian, and the Boston Globe. Blum is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a lifetime associate of the National Academy of Sciences.

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