Early Food Safety Workers Tested Poisons by Eating Them

They were hailed as heroes and even had a song

Poison Squad
Harvey W. Wiley and his Poison Squad in 1902 Public Work/U.S. Food and Drug Administration

In the late 1800s, food in the U.S. was full of imitations (corn syrup masquerading as maple syrup, for instance) and questionable preservatives such as borax—now commonly used as a detergent but certainly not advisable to consume. The time was ripe for some food safety reform, but when Harvey W. Wiley, a chemist at the Department of Agriculture, introduced bill after bill, all were killed, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website. He needed something drastic to capture the nation’s attention, so he assembled a Poison Squad.

The Poison Squad was assembled of the best and brightest. For Esquire, Bruce Watson writes:

The human lab rats were “twelve young clerks, vigorous and voracious.” All were graduates of the civil service exam, all were screened for “high moral character,” and all had reputations for “sobriety and reliability.” One was a former Yale sprinter, another a captain in the local high school’s cadet regiment, and a third a scientist in his own right. All twelve took oaths, pledging one year of service, promising to only eat food that was prepared in the Poison Squad’s kitchen, and waiving their right to sue the government for damages -- including death -- that might result from their participation in the program.

When his 12 young men were given borax-laced meals, reports Phil Edwards for Vox, they did indeed get sick. Five years of tests covered salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, sodium benzoate and formaldehyde. And the symptoms that cropped up—nausea, stomachaches and vomiting in the most extreme instances—inspired people around the country to write in and demand regulation.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 can be attributed to the heroic suffering Squad and its zealous leader, Wiley. They were hailed as heroes and even had a song, Vox reports:

On Prussic acid we break our fast;

we lunch on a morphine stew;

We dine with a matchhead consomme,

drink carbolic acid brew;

-The Song Of The Poison Squad by S.W. Gillilan

In 1912, when Wiley retired, the FDA reports that a headline of the day read: "WOMEN WEEP AS WATCHDOG OF THE KITCHEN QUITS AFTER 29 YEARS."

If the state of food safety then seems bad, consider that deaths and illness from food poisoning still hits millions each year in the U.S. Now, many of the problems are microbe-based, rather than from poisons deliberately added to preserve. The Food Safety Modernization Act is intended to address our problems, although it has its critics. While reinstating the Poison Squad would be extreme, there’s still a case to be made for more dedicated efforts to make what we eat safe.

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