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Monday, March 7, 2011

Poison Squads

If you visualize a meal taking place back at the turn of the 20th Century, you might think of an elegant dinner party with men and women dressed to kill, or perhaps a family sitting down to enjoy a hearty meal. This article I found in Slate completely kills that image for me.  In either of the aforementioned scenarious, you would probably never surmise that industrial chemicals like formaldehyde and boric acid were among the menu offerings.

But they were, because these were two substances that were commonly used in food preparation back then. You think those people knew that their tasty steaks had been soaked in boric acid and formaldehyde before they bought them at the butcher’s shop? Most likely, they were totally oblivious to it and to everything else that went into their food prior to purchase. Before 1902, the regulation of commercial food products was practically nonexistent. The food industry had successfully repelled attempts to regulate its products, which meant that there were no label requirements, no safety tests, and no monitoring of the stuff that went into the products. Worst of all, people had no information on the risks they were taking when they sat down to a meal.

U.S.D.A. scientist Harvey Wiley saw this as a major problem and set out to change it. His novel idea was to have volunteers essentially taste-test the nation’s groceries. Wiley built a kitchen and dining room in the basement of the Department of Agriculture’s building in Washington where, for six months, he served poisoned food to groups of volunteers, hence the moniker “poison squads”. Each menu would include one ingredient from a list of highly suspect preservatives and coloring agents commonly used in foods. Each time squad members sat down to a meal there, they knew that something on their plates was contaminated, but they never knew which specific course was tainted or what it was tainted with. Among the chemicals ingested was borax, which contained generous amounts of boron; copper sulfate, which is used as a pesticide today; and formaldehyde. Formaldehyde and boron were commonly used as meat preservatives. Butchers mixed borax and boric acid with salt and red dye to disguise old and rotting meat. Copper sulfate was used on expensive grades of peas to make them appear greener than regular peas.

Wiley’s intentional poisonings didn’t occur in vain. The experiment brought attention to some serious issues concerning the nation’s food supply, and four years after Wiley began his experiment, the nation’s first law regulating food and drug manufacturing went into effect. It is officially known as the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, but it also had a nickname. Can you guess what it was? That’s right – it was also known as the Wiley Act.

Source: Slate Magazine at, March 2, 2011

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